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How Dangerous Are Food Allergies?

By: Suzanne Elvidge BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 15 Oct 2012 |
Allergy Intolerance Food Anaphylactic

A food allergy happens when the body’s immune system mistakes proteins in food for infections and produces antibodies against them

Common foods that cause allergies include cow's milk, eggs, wheat, soya, fish, shellfish, including mussels, crabs, prawns, shrimp and squid, and nuts, including peanuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts.

What Is The Difference Between Food Intolerance and Food Allergy?

Food intolerances can be unpleasant, but aren’t usually life threatening, and don’t involve the immune system. Symptoms tend to include sickness, diarrhoea, stomach pains and bloating.

What are the Symptoms of Food Allergies?

The symptoms of food allergies can be immediate, coming on within 20 minutes of eating the food in question, and may include hives (itchy bumps on the skin), rash, itching, sickness and diarrhoea, stomach-ache, bloating, tingling and swelling of the lips and other parts of the mouth, runny nose and sneezing, coughing and wheezing, and dizziness.

The symptoms of food allergies can also be delayed, such as eczema. Coeliac disease is a delayed allergic reaction to gluten, a protein in wheat. It causes bloating, diarrhoea and stomach pains, and reduces the absorption of nutrients in food.

Symptoms of a serious allergic reaction, known as anaphylactic shock, include severe asthma and swelling of the tongue and throat causing problems with breathing, as well as a significant drop in blood pressure. If anaphylactic shock is not treated quickly, it can lead to death.

How Dangerous are Food Allergies?

Most food allergies, though, are mild and are unpleasant rather than dangerous. While anaphylactic shock is very serious, and is given a high profile by the media, it is very rare – children are at a much higher risk from asthma, or crossing the road.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Food Allergies

Diagnosis of food allergies includes descriptions of the symptoms, as well as results from oral challenges (eating a small amount of the particular food under the supervision of a doctor), skin prick tests (introducing a tiny amount of the food under skin and seeing if the skin becomes red and itchy) and blood tests (known as RAST – radioallergosorbent test).

It is important that food allergies are properly diagnosed and monitored by a doctor, as over-the-counter tests may be unreliable. About 50% of adults who think they have a food allergy actually do not – only about 1% of the adult population, and 2-4% of children actually have food allergies, and some children will grow out of the allergies.

Mild allergic symptoms can be treated with over the counter antihistamines. The early stages of anaphylaxis can be treated using an adrenaline autoinjector (EpiPen).

Food allergies are usually treated by avoiding the food that causes the allergy, but in some cases they can be cured by gradual exposure to very small amount of the food that causes the allergic response to allow a tolerance to build up (this should only be done by a doctor).

What Can Parents Do?

It is important to check food ingredients lists carefully, and to make sure that the child and his or her friends (and their parents) understand that certain foods need to be avoided.

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