All About Food Allergies
All of us eat to survive, and most of us enjoy eating. However, recent studies have found that almost 1 in 20 young children under the age of 5 years and almost 1 in 25 adults are allergic to at least one food. Other studies indicate that food allergy, especially allergy to peanut, is on the rise. As a result, more and more people are becoming aware of food allergy, making it a subject of increasing public concern.
When one person in a family has a food allergy, the whole family is affected. There may be day-to-day anxiety that a loved one may accidentally eat a food that could lead to anaphylaxis,
a dangerous allergic reaction.
This will help you understand allergic reactions to foods and their possible causes, and it explains how a healthcare professional diagnoses and treats food allergy.
If you suspect you or a member of your family have a food allergy, consult your healthcare professional for medical advice.
What Is Food Allergy?
Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food triggered by the body’s immune system. There are several types of immune responses to food. This booklet focuses on one type of adverse reaction to food—that in which the body produces a specific type of antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE).
The binding of IgE to specific molecules present in a food triggers the immune response. The response may be mild or in rare cases it can be associated with the severe and life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.
Therefore, if you have a food allergy, it is extremely important for you to work with your healthcare professional to learn what foods cause your allergic reaction.
Sometimes, a reaction to food is not an allergy at all but another type of reaction called food intolerance.
What Is an Allergic Reaction to Food?
A food allergy occurs when the immune system responds to a harmless food as if it were a threat. The first time a person with food allergy is exposed to the food, no symptoms occur; but the first exposure primes the body to respond the next time. When the person eats the food again, an allergic response can occur.
WHAT IS A FIRST EXPOSURE TO FOOD?
Usually, the way you are first exposed to a food is when you eat it. But sometimes a first exposure or subsequent exposure can occur without your knowledge.
This may be true in the case of peanut allergy. A person who experiences anaphylaxis on the first known exposure to peanut may have previously
• Touched peanuts
• Used a peanut-containing skin care product
• Breathed in peanut dust in the home or when close to other people eating peanuts
The Allergic Reaction Process
An allergic reaction to food is a two-step process.
Step 1:The first time you are exposed to a food allergen, your immune system reacts as if the food were harmful and makes specific IgE antibodies to that allergen. The antibodies circulate through your blood and attach to mast cells and basophils. Mast cells are found in all body tissues, especially in areas of your body that are typical sites of allergic reactions. Those sites include your nose, throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Basophils are found in your blood and also in tissues that have become inflamed due to an allergic reaction.
Step 2:The next time you are exposed to the same food allergen, it binds to the IgE antibodies that are attached to the mast cells and basophils. The binding signals the cells to release massive amounts of chemicals such as histamine. Depending on the tissue in which they are released, these chemicals will cause you to have various symptoms of food allergy. The symptoms can range from mild to severe. A severe allergic reaction can include a potentially life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.
Generally, you are at greater risk for developing a food allergy if you come from a family in which allergies are common. These allergies are not necessarily food allergies but perhaps other allergic diseases, such as asthma or eczema (atopic dermatitis). If you have two parents who have allergies, you are more likely to develop food allergy than someone with one parent who has allergies.
An allergic reaction to food usually takes place within a few minutes to several hours after exposure to the allergen. The process of eating and digesting food and the location of mast cells both affect the timing and location of the reaction.
Symptoms of Food Allergy
If you are allergic to a particular food, you may experience all or some of the following symptoms:
• Itching in your mouth
• Swelling of lips and tongue
• GI symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps and pain
• Worsening of eczema
• Tightening of the throat or trouble breathing
• Drop in blood pressure
EOSINOPHILIC ESOPHAGITISEosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) is a newly recognized chronic disease that can be associated with food allergies. It is increasingly being diagnosed in children and adults.
Symptoms of EoE include nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain after eating. A person may also have symptoms that resemble acid reflux from the stomach. In older children and adults, it can cause more severe symptoms, such as difficulty swallowing solid food or solid food sticking in the esophagus for more than a few minutes. In infants, this disease may be associated with failure to thrive.
If you are diagnosed with EoE, you will probably be tested for allergies. In some situations, avoiding certain food allergens will be an effective treatment for EoE.
CROSS-REACTIVE FOOD ALLERGIESIf you have a life-threatening reaction to a certain food, your healthcare professional will show you how to avoid similar foods that may trigger this reaction. For example, if you have a history of allergy to shrimp, allergy testing will usually show that you are also allergic to other shellfish, such as crab, lobster, and crayfish. This is called cross-reactivity.
(Courtesy: US Government health department)