Eating: a vital need for all, a source of pleasure for some, a source of worry for others. If the latter applies to you, it might be because you or a loved one suffers from a food allergy.
What is a food allergy?
For some people, it can be difficult to imagine that a trace of food could cause a reaction as alarming and stunning as a food allergy can be; those who have witnessed it know how panic inducing it is. A food allergy is a serious condition that can sometimes be fatal. That is why people who live with this daily reality must be extremely careful when eating.
Food allergies affect 5 to 6% of young children and 4% of adults in Canada. They cause major worries in both allergy sufferers and their loved ones. They cannot be cured, so managing allergies consists of avoiding all contact with the foods that trigger them. And if an allergic reaction occurs, you must be ready to act quickly and effectively to avoid any consequences.
A food allergy is the immune system’s inadequate reaction to an allergen contained in food. The immune system perceives the allergen as something harmful to its health, even though, in reality, it is completely harmless. To fight it, the body releases substances such as antibodies and histamine, which cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction. It is important to not confuse an allergy with intolerance. An allergy is provoked by the immune system, while intolerance is associated with adverse effects that, often, affect the digestive system (diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, etc.). Intolerances generally do not threaten the life of the sufferer.
What are the differences between an allergy and food intolerance?
Upon contact with an allergen, even if it is only present in minimal amounts, an allergic person can experience various symptoms very quickly. Some minor symptoms include:
These symptoms are not dangerous and can be treated by taking medication known as antihistamine.
However, you may have a severe food allergy if you experience some of the following symptoms:
- tingling tongue;
- difficulty swallowing or speaking;
- breathing difficulties;
- swelling of the face, lips, tongue or throat;
- drop in blood pressure;
- changes in pulse;
If you have ever experienced these symptoms after consuming food, you should see a doctor. In the most severe cases, especially in the absence of appropriate care, an allergy can lead to death.
It is possible for a food allergy to be the cause of digestion-related symptoms, such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting or abdominal cramps. These symptoms often accompany other, more typical symptoms of an allergic reaction. Most of the time, they indicate food intolerance.
What triggers a food allergy?
A food allergy can be caused by an allergen (often, a protein) contained in a food or a food additive. Here are some of the main allergens:
- peanuts, nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios;
- sesame seeds;
- fish and seafood;
- food colouring;
- monosodium glutamate;
- sodium benzoate.
A person can be sensitive to one or several allergens, and the intensity of the allergic reaction can go from mild to severe. It is important to know that one allergen can have many names, so it is vital to read labels carefully and to know all the possible appellations of the substance you need to avoid.
How can I tell what I’m allergic to?
If you experience allergy symptoms when you eat a certain food, it is recommended to keep a journal and write down your symptoms, as well as the details of what you ate in the past 12 hours. Your doctor may then refer you to an allergist so that you can take some tests (skin, blood or challenge) and determine the allergen that affects you.
Who is at risk of an allergy?
There are two factors that predispose someone to an allergy: age and heredity. Indeed, children are more often affected by allergies than adults. Many allergies can disappear with time, while some can last a whole lifetime. In terms of heredity, we know that children of parents who have allergies are at higher risk of suffering from a food allergy. In addition, asthma, hay fever and eczema in the family increase the risk of allergies.
Here are some tips to help you avoid exposure to a food allergen:
- Tell those who are close to you about your allergy, including school or daycare staff if the allergy sufferer is a child. Tell them what measures to take in case of an allergic reaction.
- Always check the list of ingredients of the foods you buy and eat.
- Look for a declaration indicating the absence of the allergen on labels, such as “peanut free”. Also watch for the words “May contain…”.
- Avoid foods that come without a list of ingredients or that contain ingredients you are not familiar with.
- Avoid sharing dishes and cutlery, and make sure you the ones you use are clean. An allergic reaction can occur as a result of cross-contamination, i.e. through an object that has been in contact with the allergen.
- Avoid food sold in bulk since the risk of cross-contamination is higher.
- Before taking medication, check with your pharmacist or with the product manufacturer that it does not contain the allergen or has not been in contact with it during the manufacturing process.
- At all times, wear a bracelet or pendant that indicates you suffer from an allergy (for example, MedicAlert®).
- Stay vigilant at all time; being too relaxed could be catastrophic. Be especially careful when you are out of the house: restaurant, buffet, travelling, etc.
If you have to deal with the risks associated with a severe allergy on a daily basis, it is essential to have an epinephrine auto-injector on hand at all times. You and your loved ones should all know how to use it. In case of an allergic reaction, you must use it immediately, then go to the emergency room or call emergency services. This is a matter of life and death. Your pharmacist can tell you more about the best way to use the auto-injector and the measures to follow in case of an allergic reaction. You should also read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully and visit the company website, which contains loads of information. Being well informed will allow you to react accordingly in an emergency situation.
They say that if you play with fire, you’ll get burned... and if you are someone who has a severe allergy, that is something you should keep in mind constantly. Count on your health professionals to help you recognize the “enemy” and manage your allergy!