Five things to know about food allergies

Australia has one of the highest rates of food allergy in the world. In this blog, you’ll learn the 5 things you need to know about food allergies.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is an abnormal immune system response to food. A person’s body mistakenly believes certain food proteins are harmful, so their immune system produces antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) to ‘fight’ the food protein. Histamine and other chemicals are also released which cause skin, gastrointestinal, and/or cardiovascular symptoms.

Food allergies can occur in people of any age. However, they are most common in young children. In Australia, 11% of infants, 4-8% of children, and 2-4% of adults have a food allergy.

What are the most common food allergens? 

Any food can cause an allergic reaction. However, 90% of food allergies are caused by these 9 foods:

  • cow’s milk
  • egg 
  • peanuts 
  • tree nuts
  • sesame 
  • soy  
  • fish 
  • shellfish 
  • wheat.

The most common food allergens in babies and young children are cow’s milk, egg, peanuts, and tree nuts.

What are the signs and symptoms of a food allergy?

Allergic reactions to food can be mild, moderate, or severe. Signs and symptoms of mild to moderate allergic reactions include:

  • swelling of lips, face, or eyes
  • hives or welts on the skin
  • tingling or itchy mouth
  • abdominal pain and/or vomiting. 

Mild or moderate symptoms usually occur within a few minutes (especially in young children), but they can appear 1-2 hours after eating a trigger food.

Anaphylaxis is a sudden, severe, and life-threatening allergic reaction affecting a person’s breathing and heart. Signs and symptoms of severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) include:

  • difficult or noisy breathing
  • swelling of the tongue or throat
  • difficulty talking or a hoarse cry/voice
  • pale and floppy (infants and young kids) 
  • persistent coughing
  • persistent dizziness
  • collapse

What is a food intolerance?

People often confuse food allergies with food intolerance. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances do not involve the immune system. Food intolerances arise because a person can’t digest certain foods properly. This could be due to:

  • an enzyme deficiency (e.g., lactose intolerance)
  • a sensitivity reaction to a food component (e.g., caffeine, MSG) or other naturally occurring food chemicals (e.g., salicylates, amines) or
  • an adverse reaction to an artificial food preservative (e.g., sulphites).

It can be difficult to determine whether someone has a food intolerance or an allergy because the signs and symptoms of these conditions overlap. Common symptoms of food intolerance include bloating, excess gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea, headaches, migraine, rashes, and hives.

How are food allergies diagnosed?

If you think your child may have a food allergy, you should visit your general practitioner (GP) for a referral to an immunologist or allergist. An immunologist or allergist is a doctor who has specialised in the diagnosis, treatment, and management of immune system conditions. Food allergy diagnoses are based on a patient’s clinical history, skin prick tests or blood tests that measure allergen-specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, and medically supervised oral food challenges (if appropriate).

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