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Food Allergy Awareness Week 2020: What Is A Food Allergy? Common Allergens, Symptoms & Risk Factors

Food Allergy Awareness Week is observed from 10 - 16 May every year. Food Allergy Awareness Week provides a unique opportunity to help raise awareness of food allergies and anaphylaxis - a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. The initiative was created by FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) and observed the first Food Allergy Awareness Week in 1998 [1].

Today, we will look into what food allergy is and who are at the risk of developing them.


What Is A Food Allergy?

A food allergy can be described as a condition in which certain foods trigger an abnormal immune response. This immune system reaction can arise from even a tiny amount of allergy-causing food, resulting in digestive problems, hives or swollen airways [2].

Reports point out that food allergies affect an estimated six to eight per cent of children under age three and up to three per cent of adults [3]. In some people, food allergies can cause severe symptoms or even a life-threatening reaction is known as anaphylaxis [4]. While some people, especially children outgrow their food allergy as they get older - it is not the case for everyone.

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One develops a food allergy when the immune system wrongly recognises certain proteins in food as harmful and causes to implement protective measures, including releasing chemicals like histamine, which causes inflammation [5].


What Are The Types Of Food Allergies?

Food allergies can be divided into two main types and they are, IgE antibody or non-IgE antibody [6]. In an IgE food allergy, the IgE antibody is released by your immune system, and in a non-IgE food allergy, IgE antibodies aren't released, and other parts of the immune system are used to fight the threat [7].

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Note: Antibodies are a type of blood protein used by the immune system to recognise and fight infection.


What Are The Symptoms Of A Food Allergy?

Symptoms can occur anywhere from a few minutes after exposure to a few hours later and the most common symptoms of food allergy are as follows [6]:

  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body
  • Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Tingling or itching in the mouth
  • Hives, itching or eczema
  • Diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
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    In severe cases, a food allergy can cause anaphylaxis - which is often fatal [7]. The symptoms of anaphylaxis are as follows:

    • Rapid pulse
    • Tightening of the airways
    • A swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in your throat
    • Shock with a severe drop in blood pressure
    • Dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness

What Are The Most Common Food Allergies?

As aforementioned, certain foods are increasingly prone to triggering food allergies in people and they are as follows [8]:

Peanuts: Peanut allergies are very common and can cause severe and potentially fatal allergic reactions. While the reason people develop a peanut allergy is not known, individuals with a family history of peanut allergies are most at risk [9]. Peanut allergies affect around four-eight per cent of children and one-two per cent of adults [10]. However, most children with peanut allergies overcome the allergy as they reach their teenage years.

Symptoms specific to a peanut allergy are runny nose, hives, redness or swelling, digestive problems and tightness of the throat.

Shellfish: Another common type of food allergy, this one develops as a result of your body attacking proteins from the shellfish. Common shellfish allergens are shrimp, prawns, lobster, and squid [11]. The most common trigger of a seafood allergy is a protein called tropomyosin and the symptoms develop rather quickly.

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Symptoms specific to a shellfish allergy are digestive issues like vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach pain [12]. This allergy will not resolve with time, so people with the allergy must exclude all types of shellfish from their diet.

Tree Nuts: A very common food allergy around the globe, a tree nut allergy is an allergy to some of the nuts that come from trees [13]. People with a tree nut allergy will also be allergic to Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, macadamia nut, pistachios and walnuts [14]. They will also be allergic to food products such as oil and butter made with these nuts.

Tree nut allergies are responsible for around 50 per cent of anaphylaxis-related deaths [15]. Due to this, people with nut allergies are advised to carry an epi-pen - which can help in the event of an allergic reaction.


What Are The Most Common Food Allergies?

Eggs: An egg allergy is the second most common cause of food allergy in children [16]. However, most of them outgrow the allergy with age. Some people can be allergic to egg whites, but not the yolks and vice-versa.

Symptoms specific to an egg allergy are digestive distress, such as a stomach ache, skin reactions, such as hives or a rash, respiratory problems and anaphylaxis in rare cases [17].

Cow's Milk: An allergy to cow's milk is most often seen in babies and young children, especially if they have been exposed to cow's milk protein before they are six months old [18]. However, most of the children outgrow the allergy, making it much less common in adults.

An individual who is allergic to cow's milk should avoid milk, milk powder, cheese, butter, margarine, ice cream, yoghurt and cream [19].

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Some of the other common foods that cause allergies are as follows:

  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Fish, mostly in adults
  • Corn
  • Seeds
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Passion fruit
  • Celery
  • Garlic
  • In children, food allergies are commonly triggered by proteins in peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, cow's milk, wheat and soy. And in adults, food allergies are triggered by certain proteins in shellfish, such as shrimp, lobster and crab, peanuts, tree nuts such as walnuts and pecans and fish [20].


What Are The Risk Factors For Food Allergies?

The common risk factors are as follows [21]:

  • Age: Food allergies are more common in children, especially toddlers and infants.
  • Asthma: Asthma and food allergy commonly occur together.
  • Other food allergies: If an individual is already allergic to one food, they may be at an increased risk of becoming allergic to another.
  • Having a history of asthma
  • Delaying use of epinephrine to treat the food allergy symptoms, in the case of an anaphylactic reaction
  • Not having hives or other skin symptoms, in the case of an anaphylactic reaction.
  • The complications of food allergies include anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction and atopic dermatitis (eczema), a food allergy may cause a skin reaction, such as eczema [22].


How Is A Food Allergy Diagnosed?

There is no specific way to confirm or rule out a food allergy. The doctor will examine the symptoms, family history of allergies, carry out a physical examination and a skin test [23].

Once the preliminary diagnosis is done, the doctor may ask you to undergo the following tests.

  • Elimination test where the doctor will advise you to eliminate suspect foods for a week, which can help link symptoms to specific foods.
  • Oral food challenge, where you will be given small but increasing amounts of the food suspected of causing your symptoms.
  • A blood test to measure your immune system's response to particular foods by measuring the allergy-related antibody (IgE).

What Are The Treatments For A Food Allergy?

  • For a minor food allergy: Over-the-counter antihistamines can help reduce symptoms [24].
  • For a severe allergic reaction: You may need an emergency injection of epinephrine and medical attention. Many people with allergies carry an epinephrine autoinjector, where they will be trained by the doctor on how to use it [25].
  • Some of the possible treatment measures for food allergies are oral immunotherapy and early exposure. Researchers are studying the safe implementation and use of these two in the treatment of food allergies [26].


On A Final Note…

One should be careful not to mistaken food intolerances as food allergies as food intolerances do not involve the immune system but the digestive system and it occurs when a person has difficulty digesting a particular food. Although they are not life-threatening, food intolerances can severely impact your quality of life.

Read more about: food allergy symptoms causes