Food allergy is something that I know about personally, not as a doctor but as someone who has a serious allergy. I have a serious peanut allergy that I’ve had since I was a child. Most people are shocked that I’ve never had foods like peanut butter, Nutella or satay. I’ve been lucky enough to have only had two serious reactions in the last decade, partly because I can avoid my allergen. Also, unlike other people with allergy, although serious, my allergy is still a lot better than other peoples’. Speaking from personal experience, it is very scary to experience.
It seems that everyone has a food that they can’t eat these days, something that seems to create a lot of confusion around food allergies. For this food allergy week, I want to share with you some important points to know about living with a food allergy and anaphylaxis.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is when your immune system overreacts to something that is normally pretty harmless. When exposed to that thing, called and allergen, your immune system goes into overdrive, releasing substances that cause a wide range of reactions from itching and sneezing to severe life-threatening collapse. It can happen within 20 minutes of exposure to an allergen or take a bit longer to come on (up to hours), but can progress to being deadly very quickly.
What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is a very severe form of allergy where the response of the immune system is so overwhelming as to be life-threatening. In anaphylaxis, the person gets low blood pressure, severe difficulties breathing, a widespread skin reaction and even your gut can be affected. In rare cases, people can actually die from anaphylaxis which is why people like me, carry adrenaline everywhere to treat a reaction.
What is the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance?
A food intolerance is not an allergy. These tend to happen when you eat a food and feel unwell a few hours later. Rather than happening because your immune system is overreacting, intolerances happen because of a sensitivity to a food or a something within a food. Allergy isn’t just an upset tummy, food poisoning or a severe aversion to a food. It’s important that we distinguish between the two because intolerances may be uncomfortable or unpleasant whereas food allergies can be life-threatening. We definitely do not want people to become complacent when it comes to food allergies.
How do you get an allergy?
There is certainly some degree of genetics involved as we often see allergies cluster in families. It’s not the only reason though and the things that we are exposed to as children or even before we’re born may lead to the development of allergies. When you have children, there is advice about what foods to give kids when to reduce the development of allergies. In children though, some food allergies can be ‘grown out of’ while those in adults, tend to stay around.
What are some common foods that cause allergies?
Allergies can happen to many things such as medications and insect stings or bites. Foods are quite a common cause of allergies and over 170 foods have been implicated in allergies. Common foods that cause allergies include peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, sesame, fish, shellfish or soy. There can be some cross-reactivity between nuts so it’s important to be careful when trying different foods if you already have a known allergy.
What are the signs of allergy and anaphylaxis?
Allergy can cause hives or redness near where the allergen was or even over the whole body. It can also cause swelling of the area, vomiting and abdominal pain or tingling in the mouth, especially if it’s a food allergy.
Anaphylaxis is a much more serious form of reaction where you see symptoms such as difficult or noisy breathing, swollen tongue or throat, wheeze or coughing, feeling dizzy or collapsing and being floppy in children. Any of these signs mean that you need emergency medical attention including giving adrenaline, hopefully via an EpiPen® and a visit to the hospital.
How do you treat allergy?
If you have an allergy, you must have an action plan. You can do this with your GP and immunologist (a doctor who specializes in allergies) and read more about here at Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia.
If you’re worried or a person has had severe reaction, do not wait and see if it gets better. Call 000 and get an ambulance immediately. If they have an EpiPen®, administer it as per the instructions. You can get training EpiPens to familirise yourself with how to use it. If the person has an asthma puffer, you can give that too. Antihistamines don’t help to stop anaphylaxis, they should only be given in mild cases and simply dull down itchiness.
This blog constitutes general information only. For more information, contact your doctor. If you are having a medical emergency, call 000 immediately.