What Are Food Allergies?
Food allergies occur when the body’s immune system triggers an adverse reaction to certain foods that are perceived to be a danger to the body. Around 6 percent of children under the age of five have a food allergy and around 3-4 percent of adults.
However, despite these small numbers, the prevalence of food allergies is on the rise and serious reactions to food allergies can be life-threatening, causing anaphylaxis. Food allergies are thought to be responsible for around 150-200 deaths per year.
In this article, we’ll be looking at what causes food allergies, what the symptoms are, and what the treatments are.
What Causes Food Allergies?
Food allergies are caused by the body’s immune system identifying proteins contained within food as foreign bodies. This causes the immune system to trigger the same response as it would when microbes and bacteria are detected.
In response to this perceived attack, the body releases several chemical mediators, such as histamine, that lead to symptoms of the allergy.
Are Food Allergies Dangerous?
While most food allergies lead to very mild symptoms, in line with other allergic reactions like pet allergies and hayfever, some can trigger a much more severe reaction. Food allergy sufferers are at risk of anaphylaxis.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis include difficulty in breathing, swelling inside the airways and larynx that can cause choking, dizziness, and even loss of consciousness. In addition, blood pressure can fall rapidly leaving the skin cold and clammy and sending the patient into shock.
What Are the Common Food Allergies?
Common food allergies found in children include egg and milk allergies. Adults, on the other hand, are more likely to be allergic to certain fruit and vegetables. Nut and shellfish allergies are seen at a similar level across all age groups.
Food allergies are often confused with food intolerances, such as lactose or gluten intolerance. While food intolerances can cause unpleasant symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, or diarrhea, they don’t regularly lead to a severe allergic reaction.
What Are the Signs of a Food Allergy?
Common symptoms of food allergies include:
- A skin rash (called urticaria) that appears raised and is severely itchy. Urticaria may be confined to one part of the body (typically a rash on the face) or spread all over it. In some individuals, the skin may only become red, itchy, and not raised.
- Angioedema or swelling of the eyes, lips, mouth, throat, palate (roof of the mouth), tongue, and face.
- Constriction of the throat and difficulty in breathing.
- Swelling of the larynx or voice box may lead to hoarseness and further difficulty in breathing. There may be a cough and a tightness of the chest due to constricted breathing and some patients may develop an audible wheeze.
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea along with abdominal bloating, pain, and cramps, with blood or mucus present in stools.
- Flu-like symptoms including runny nose, nasal blockage, sneezing and watering, or redness of the eyes (allergic conjunctivitis).
- Delayed allergic reactions may include atopic eczema that leads to the formation of itchy, dry, and cracked skin lesions.
- Babies with food allergies (especially milk) cry due to colic and abdominal spasms. The baby may have diarrhea and there is usually redness or nappy rash around the anus and the genitals.
In the rare case that a food allergy triggers anaphylactic shock, symptoms will include:
- Difficulty in breathing due to narrowing of the airways and swelling of the larynx
- Rapid heart rate
- Rapid fall in blood pressure causing dizziness or lightheadedness and cold, clammy skin.
- Itchy urticaria and angioedema
- Severe apprehension or anxiety
What Can Be Used to Treat Food Allergies?
Histamine is one of the major mediators of allergic reactions and is released from several of the body’s immune cells in response to a food allergen. This being the case, antihistaminic agents are useful for treating mild-to-moderate allergies.
However, if the allergy has triggered anaphylaxis the patient may need to be given adrenaline (epinephrine) to reverse the life-threatening swelling of the airways.
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Jenette Ashcraft, N.C.M.A.
Allied Health Department Director
R.M.A. National Education Center