What causes food allergies?
Food allergies occur when your body thinks a certain food is harmful and produces antibodies to deal with it. This leads to a range of physical symptoms known as an allergic reaction.
Who gets food allergies?
Around one in five adults in the UK believe they have a food allergy, but many people confuse food allergies with food intolerance. Only about one in 70 adults actually suffers from a food allergy.
Food allergies are more common in young children than in adults, but many children outgrow them and some people do not develop food allergies until they are an adult.
What is food intolerance or sensitivity?
If you are intolerant or sensitive to a certain food you may experience certain uncomfortable side-effects after you eat it. The effects usually take longer to notice than the effects of food allergies and are less serious.
You might be able to eat a small amount of the food without experiencing any side-effects at all.
What are the symptoms of a food allergy?
Some food allergies can be more serious than others and cause life-threatening reactions, such as anaphylactic shock.
Anaphylaxis(pronounced an-uh-fuh–lak-sis), also known as anaphylactic shock,is a very rare full-body allergic reaction, often associated with peanut allergy, which can lead to unconsciousness if not treated in time.
More common food allergies lead to reactions such as:
- Rashes, itching and flushing
- Swollen and itchy mouth and eyes
- Nausea, vomiting, bloating and diarrhoea
- Coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
These are not the only possible reactions food allergies can cause and such symptoms can signal something other than a food allergy, so it’s important to see your GP to find out more.
How do you know if you’ve got a food allergy?
Because the symptoms of food allergies can also be symptoms of lots of other problems, it’s not always easy to tell whether or not you’ve definitely got a food allergy.
Make an appointment with your GP who will be able to start to try and pinpoint what the problem is. They will ask you a number of questions about your symptoms and medical history and will probably examine you.
If they think it’s likely you do have a food allergy, your GP may then refer you to a specialist clinic.
How can food allergies be diagnosed?
If your GP refers you to an allergy specialist, you may be asked to start an elimination diet. Elimination diets involve cutting out a particular food that you might be allergic to, but it’s important that you only do this if advised by a medical professional; otherwise you could miss out on important nutrients.
Skin prick tests
Another method of testing for food allergies is to put a small amount of the food you might be allergic to on a small scratch somewhere on your skin. If the scratch becomes red and swollen, you might be allergic to that food.
However, some people can have a reaction to particular foods in skin prick tests but not when they actually eat them, so skin prick tests are usually done along with other tests.
Blood tests are sometimes carried out if you have a severe food allergy or if you can’t have a skin prick test (for example, because of eczema or another skin condition).
Unproven food allergy tests
There are tests for food allergies that you can buy over the internet, through mail order and in shops, but they are not proven to be accurate and they will cost you money!
It is a much better idea to go to your GP and receive free, accurate testing if you think you suffer from a food allergy.
How can food allergies be treated?
Antihistamines, which can be bought over-the-counter as well as prescribed by your GP, can help with some of the symptoms of food allergies such as rashes or a runny nose. Ask your GP before you start taking them.
Once you know what you are allergic to, you will be able to avoid symptoms in the future by cutting out that food altogether. A medical professional such as a dietician will help you find ways to replace the nutrients you might be missing out on.
What about emergency treatment?
If you are diagnosed with a severe food allergy which can lead to anaphylaxis (an anaphylactic shock) then you may be prescribed a treatment such as an adrenaline syringe (e.g. an EpiPen) which you should carry around with you at all times in case of an allergic reaction.
Make sure you and others (such as family, friends and teachers) know how to administer your treatment in case of an emergency.
What can I do to prevent an allergic reaction?
If you suffer from a food allergy, make sure you always check the ingredients carefully before you buy food. If you’re eating out or ordering a takeaway, ask what the food has been cooked in. A food that does not contain nuts might have been cooked in nut oils for example, which could be extremely dangerous if you’re a nut allergy sufferer.
When you eat takeaways, at other people’s houses, or at restaurants, make sure they are aware of how serious your food allergy is and that you’re not just being a ‘fussy eater’ when you ask about ingredients and what the food has been cooked in.
It’s safer to completely avoid foods which don’t list the ingredients and to take your own food to friends’ houses or social events, especially if you suffer from a severe food allergy which could lead to anaphylactic shock.
Other things you can do to help yourself include wearing a bracelet or carrying a card that gives details about your allergy (you can ask your GP about this) and making sure people around you (at home, work, school, college or university) know about your allergy and how to help in the case of a severe reaction.
Who can help?
If you think you might have a food allergy, your first stop should be your GP. Make an appointment and they can help you figure out what you’re allergic to and what can be done.
For more on anaphylaxis and to use an online symptom checker which will tell you if you have an allergy or food sensitivity, visit the NHS website.
You can also visit www.foodreactions.org to find out more about allergies, intolerances and adverse reactions to food.
http://www.foodallergy.org/ works to increase research into food allergies and anaphylaxis.