What are food allergies?
Food allergies are an immune response by the body to a certain kind of food. In most cases, the protein in the food is the culprit. The body considers the protein to be its enemy and fights against it causing a reaction. These reactions can be anywhere from mild rashes on the skin to severe life-threatening anaphylaxis. As of now there is no permanent cure in allopathy.
Food intolerance Vs Food allergy
Do not confuse food intolerances to food allergies. Intolerances are non-allergic food hypersensitivity. Intolerances can be a result of the absence of specific enzymes or chemicals required to digest a particular food substance.
I have to mention this because every time I tell people that my son has a dairy allergy I hear people go “Oh, he has lactose intolerance?”. This includes doctors in India.
The top eight allergens are
- Dairy (Cow’s milk): The reason I say Dairy and not just milk is that anything with cow’s milk protein is an absolute no-no – this includes curd, buttermilk, butter, cheese, etc. But the child is not allergic to breast milk. A child which is allergic to cow’s milk could react to the mother drinking / eating dairy and it could show up as eczema (skin problems) in the child. But breast milk itself is fine. Actually the longer the child is breastfed in these cases, the more it helps the child to get out of allergies. Some people allergic to cow’s milk could also be allergic to a common protein in goat’s milk too.
- Egg: Generally it is the allergy to egg white protein. If you are looking to give your child store bought food, the thing to look out for is egg / Albumin. People with egg allergy can eat chicken without any problem. One thing to look out for is the MMR vaccine and may be other vaccines too. They contain egg protein.
- Shellfish – includes crab, prawns, etc
- Tree nuts – Hazelnut, Cashew nut, Almonds, Walnuts (The person/child could be allergic to any or all of them.) My son is allergic to Hazel nut but can eat all other nuts without any problem. By the way, Coconut doesn’t fall in the nut category!
- Peanuts. One of the most dangerous ones to be allergic to. While depending on the level of allergies, for most of the above allergen people will react if the allergen goes into the body or they touch it (localised reaction), peanut is on that can cause enough serious trouble by just being in the same room as the person allergic to it. Peanut dust is enough to cause a serious enough reaction to rush a person to ER. Result – All flights in US have been from serving peanuts as a part of their in-flight service. The recycled air on the plane is enough to create an anaphylaxis reaction to someone who is allergic to peanuts if there is even a trace of peanut on the plane. Most schools, where one child has a nut allergy, have banned children from bringing nuts into the school to avoid problems for the children with allergies.
- Soya. – This is one to look out for as many products that we didn’t realise could contain soya actually contains soya. So reading ingredients is a must.
The above is not an exhaustive list. There are people with 40 different food allergies too. People could be allergic to vegetables and fruits too.
Symptoms of Food Allergies
Symptoms of Food Allergies can be very different based on the quantity of allergens that have gone in and also how allergic the person is to that specific allergen.
- Vomiting and/or stomach cramps
- Hives/ rashes all over the body
- Shortness of breath / Wheezing
- Repetitive cough
- Shock or circulatory collapse
- Tight, hoarse throat; trouble swallowing – swelling of internal organs
- Swelling of the tongue, affecting the ability to talk or breathe
- Weak pulse
- Pale or blue coloring of the skin
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that can impair breathing and send the body into shock; reactions may simultaneously affect different parts of the body (for example, a stomach ache accompanied by a rash)
Countries which top in allergies
- New Zealand
- UK & Ireland
Reasons for Common Food allergies
While Common Food allergies are not age specific, Food Allergies in Babies are also common. Research is still going on to find out the reasons for the rise in food allergies. There are different theories about it and some of them that I have heard are
- Children born to parents with a history of allergies in some form are most likely to get allergies.
- Antibiotics that are given to the mother at the time of labour or antibiotics given to the breastfeeding mother / baby in the first couple of months.
- Mold and dampness in the surrounding where the mother lives during the pregnancy.
- Chemicals in food.
- The fact that we are now super clean and the children these days are not introduced to the normal amount of bacteria / virus that children would have been used to years ago.
- Starting solids early in babies is also said to be one of the reasons.
Many allergy tests are available:
- Skin Prick test
In India, Dr.Lal Path Labs do a comprehensive allergy test for the food panel. They do the basic top eight allergens and other suspects can be added on to it to for an extra price. They do non-food based panel too (Dust, pollen, etc). They have branches all over the country and details are available online. The results of the tests arrive in three days and is available online.
How to cope up with allergies
Once you have found out you have allergies and tested to make sure what allergies you have, the next step is finding the coping mechanism.
- Find an allergy specialist. Some big hospitals have started to recruit allergy specialists of late.
- Find out all the information you can get about the specific allergy/allergies by reading books, researching the internet, talking to people with allergies, joining support groups around the world, etc.
- Learn to read ingredients of any food brought from outside. OK, let’s cross out food and make it “anything” bought in the shop. The reason is egg in the shampoo could be as dangerous as egg in the cake!
- Educate people around you. This is very, very important as the children grow. When children go to school or go out to play with friends, it is important that nobody gives any food to the child before confirming with the parents. I would even recommend one person in the family responsible for the food for the allergic person.
Worry about cross-contamination when eating outside or even at home! Do not use the same spoon for a food with allergen and the food that an allergic person eats. This can cause a real serious reaction having to rush to the ER.
- Always have medicines handy. Talk to the school and ask them to inform you immediately if something happens in school. In the case of serious allergies, the person has to get immediate medical attention, or else it could even get fatal.
- Allergies manifest themselves in the form of Asthma and Eczema too.
- Carry your own food wherever possible. Planes, parties, picnics…. it doesn’t matter. It is easier to carry food and know what is in it rather than buy something worrying that it might contain the allergen.
- Find a support system – there are enough groups on the internet, for allergies in general and for specific allergies too.
- Remember that there is no cure for allergies at the moment. The best way to treat is to avoid the allergen completely and if there is an allergic reaction, treat the reaction with anti-histamine, epinephrine (epi-pen autoinjector) immediately Even though there is talk about Sublingual Immunotherapy (SLIT), Oral Immunotherapy (Both of these available only in the USA at the moment), NAET, Homeopathy, Ayurveda and Siddha, there is no conclusive and quick fix cure for allergies yet.
- Some children grow out of dairy and egg allergies by the time they are six or seven and their immune system is fully built up. Peanut allergies though tend to stay life long.
Support group for allergies