The NHS cannot cope with rising demand from allergy patients, says a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).
Allergy costs the NHS an estimated £900 million a year
Britain has one of the highest rates of allergy in the world, affecting one in three of the population. Of these up to five million have severe problems.
In the last 20 years, the rate of eczema and asthma has at least doubled, and there has been at least a threefold increase in nut allergies. Hospital admissions have risen by seven times.
Allergy services are "totally inadequate" and cannot meet the sheer number of referrals, according to a RCP working party.
In large parts of the country, patients with allergies receive a poor service, and have great difficulty in seeing an allergy specialist.
Chair of the working party, Professor Stephen Holgate, said: "The UK is way behind in its capacity to provide adequate allergy services when compared to most countries in Europe, the US and Australasia."
Over 18 million people in the UK have been diagnosed as having an allergic illness
The UK has the highest prevalence of allergy in Europe and ranks among the highest in the world
One in 70 children in the UK has peanut allergy, the most common food to cause fatal reactions
6% of Britons have hayfever
The UK has more than 100 allergy clinics but only 6 are staffed by consultants who offer a full-time service and have expertise in all types of allergic problems.
Due to the shortage of specialists, many patients are treated by their GP, who in most cases will have had no specialist training.
The main recommendations of the report are that:
- Regional allergy centres be set up in each NHS region to provide specialist expertise and training
More consultant allergists be appointed - an extra 32 to work in the new regional centres, and more to cover the workload in teaching hospitals, and district general hospitals
More training posts be created and funded
- GP education be improved.
Muriel Simmons of the charity Allergy UK said implementing the recommendations was the only way forward.
The UK had "the worst service in Europe" in terms of the ratio of specialists to patients, she said.
"As a nation we're losing out and we're letting people down very badly at a time when they need diagnosis and treatment," she told BBC News Online.
She said the proposals would in the long-term lead to a cost saving for the NHS by treating the root cause of allergies rather than the diseases they result in.
Allergy costs the NHS an estimated £900 million a year, mostly through prescriptions issued by GPs.
This figure does not include the costs of A&E treatment, outpatient consultations and hospital admissions.
Allergic rhinitis, asthma and eczema are the commonest manifestations of allergy.
Other patients react to food, such as shellfish or nuts, or prescribed drugs such as antibiotics.
Dr Pamela Ewan, who worked on the report, said there were probably a number of reasons for the surge in allergy cases.
These included a lack of exposure to infection in childhood. Some exposure is required for a child's developing immune system to build up defences.
Other factors probably include pollution and changes in diet.
Dr Ewan said: "Many more patients have got complicated and quite serious allergies, ranging from near fatal reactions taking them repeatedly into hospital down to day-to-day misery with a constant blocked nose, sneezing and rashes."