Food allergies are characterized by the inflammation of body tissues as a result of the immune system’s sensitivity to particular substances in food. Food allergies are different from food intolerance in that the former affects the immune system, while the latter affects the digestive system. Most food allergies are mild, although some cases may be serious enough to cause anaphylactic shock, which can be life-threatening.
What causes food allergies?
During a food allergy attack, a patient’s immune system reacts to foreign proteins (referred to as allergens), producing antibodies that attack the patient’s body tissues. Every time the patient eats that particular food, his/her body will produce more of the antibodies, resulting in rashes, swelling and itchiness. Sometimes the allergy affects the respiratory system, causing difficulty in breathing.
Most cases of food allergy are caused by sensitivity to several food types: shellfish, eggs, peanuts, soybeans, wheat, tree nuts, fish and fruits and vegetables. Sometimes foods do not trigger allergies by themselves but when exposed to certain allergens can cause a reaction from the body. This condition is known as a “cross reaction.” Some examples include birch pollen cross-reacting with nuts and grass cross-reacting with legumes.
Who is at risk of developing food allergies?
People who have a family history of allergic diseases, such asthma, hay fever or eczema, or sensitivity to certain foods are at risk of developing food allergies.
What are the symptoms of food allergies?
The symptoms of food allergies vary from individual to individual and even according to the type of food causing the allergic reaction. However, common symptoms include headache, rash, swollen lips, face, eyes or throat, vomiting or stomach cramps, asthma, itchiness of the mouth and lips, fatigue, hay fever, dizziness, rapid pulse, blue nails and skin. The symptoms often occur immediately after eating and not longer than two hours after the food has been ingested.
Once a patient has experienced a food allergy, the next attack may get serious. The thing to remember about food allergies is that each attack may be different from the previous one. Sometimes consuming even a very tiny portion of the food can constrict the airways, making breathing difficult, and cause the heart to malfunction. This condition, known as anaphylactic shock, is often life-threatening and should be brought to the immediate attention of a doctor.
How are food allergies diagnosed?
The doctor will check for food allergies by taking a complete medical history and list of ailments of the patient and conducting a physical examination. Based on the severity of symptoms, he/she may require blood and skin tests to eliminate certain allergies or prescribe a food elimination program where the patient keeps a detailed dairy of the food he/she consumes and any reaction experienced over a period of two weeks. During the two-week period, the patient will avoid any food to which he/she is sensitive. After the initial two weeks, the patient will repeatedly test his/her sensitivity to the particular food to confirm the existence of the allergy. The food elimination program should be undertaken only under the supervision of an experienced or expert allergist.
How are food allergies treated?
There is really no cure for an allergy to food. Treating the allergy only minimizes the symptoms and prevents a future allergy attack. The fastest way of treating a food allergy is to stop eating the food that causes it and to be aware of the families of foods that cause an allergic reaction. This is particularly useful because if a person is allergic to a particular food substance, such as chicken, he/she might also have a sensitivity to food from the same group, such as eggs.
Doctors or allergists may prescribe antihistamines to relieve some symptoms, such as itching, swelling or sneezing. Skin creams may provide relief from rashes. Anaphylactic shock is treated with an injection of adrenaline.
There are also a number of alternative treatments to help address food allergies. These include allergy shots to boost immunity, food supplements, herbal remedies, homeopathy and acupuncture.
Can food allergies be prevented?
In most cases, food allergies are genetic in nature and, thus, can hardly be prevented. However, patients can minimize their risk of an allergic attack by being aware of what foods trigger the allergy and knowing the symptoms.