More people are getting food allergies. From 1997 to 2007, 18% more children under 18 years were reported of having food allergies. Any food can cause an allergic reaction, but the most common for children are cow’s milk, egg, peanut, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Common adult allergens are peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. About 80% of children outgrow milk and egg allergies, but recent studies suggest that children now need more time to outgrow them than in the past. The reason why more people are making antibodies for harmless food proteins is not fully understood. One well-known hypothesis is the hygiene hypothesis: our improved hygiene has taken the burden off our immune systems, which are prepared to fight diseases or parasites, so instead begin to fight off harmless proteins. Since more people are getting food allergies, it’s important to know how to prevent and treat them.
A food allergy is when the immune system is triggered due to a certain food. The immune system doesn’t normally respond to food, but when it does it can cause vomiting, loss of breath, hives, and many other life threatening symptoms. Food allergies affect only about 3-4% of adults and up to 8% of children. And they cause 29-50% of all deaths caused by anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction), which can cause suffocation. That’s why it’s very important to identify any allergies that children may have. It is important to distinguish between food allergies and “food intolerances”, which do not cause an immune response. Food intolerance causes bloating, gas, or other unpleasant response to food and an example would be lactose intolerance, which is the inability to digest the lactose sugar found in milk. Since food allergies involve the immune system, it causes the body to react similarly to when it is exposed to germs or parasites.
The immune system normally defends the body from germs and other threats to health. Food allergies occur when the body believes that a particular protein on that food is harmful to the body. When the individual has a food allergy, the immune system responds by sending out antibodies to attack the food protein. When a person first eats a food they’re allergic to, the immune system immediately starts making more antibodies to fight against the food next time it is eaten; these antibodies will bind to mast cells, found in the body’s connective tissues, which will release histamine. Histamine is a chemical that causes swelling and itching. If the mast cells release histamine in the nose and throat, the person may experience an itchy tongue or mouth and may have trouble breathing or swallowing. If within the skin, it can cause hives or itching. If it’s released in the gastrointestinal tract, the person may get abdominal cramps or diarrhea. A fatal food allergy reaction is anaphylaxis, which involves the whole body and can be life threatening. Anaphylactic symptoms develop rapidly, often within seconds or minutes and can include abdominal pain, abnormal breathing sounds, anxiety, cough, diarrhea, fainting, itchiness, nasal congestion, and many more. Cooking or digestion cannot break down these food proteins that cause allergies, so they can travel throughout the body and therefore can cause problems in multiple places. With all these painful and sometimes life-threatening symptoms, it’s alarming that food allergies are actually becoming more common.
The best way to protect oneself from food allergies, it is best to detect them in children as soon as possible and avoid those foods. Food allergy tests include:
- Skin prick test: a diluted extract of a suspected food is placed on a skin and the skin is scratched with a needle. If the skin becomes raised or a hive forms, then there is a food allergy.
- Serum test: this tests the blood to see if it has the antibodies for a certain food.
- Atopy food testing: suspected foods in aluminum chambers on a person’s back for 48 hours. Then the skin is observed for any redness or swelling.
Prevention is a great way to avoid food allergy symptoms. Some believe that if pregnant women avoid known allergens, that would diminish the chances that their babies will develop those allergies. But, unfortunately, that is false. Rather a good way of preventing food allergies is exclusively breast-feeding a high-risk infant for at least four months; this decreases the chance of having certain allergies during the first two years of life. For mothers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants, with a strong chance of having food allergies due to family history, to have exclusive breast-feeding for six months, use a hypoallergenic formulas when not breast-feeding, have mother avoid peanuts and tree nuts during lactation, delay introduction of cow’s milk until 12 months, eggs until 24 months, and peanuts, tree nuts, and fish until age 3, and to have no maternal dietary restriction during pregnancy.
No medication can cure food allergies. The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2006 has made it easier for people to identify any potential food allergens by requiring manufacturers to identify all ingredients including common allergenic foods. Avoiding foods due to food allergies can take a toll on one’s nutritional intake, especially when avoiding milk and wheat products. When avoiding these foods, people should choose substitutions that provide equivalent nutrients.
Another way of treating food allergies is immunotherapy, which changes the way the immune system responds to allergenic foods. There are two types of immunotherapy: neutralization and low dose immunotherapy. Neutralization is when the patient is treated with “neutralizing doses” of food extracts that they are allergic to. So when an allergenic food is eaten, then neutralizing solution, which is either taken under the tongue or by self-injection, it should stop the reaction to the food. Low dose immunotherapy is when the patient is given a shot containing a small amount of allergens and an enzyme. This stimulates the body to make white blood cells that retrain the body to not react to allergenic substances.
Since food allergies, which can be fatal, are becoming more common, it is extremely important for parents to find out what their children may be allergic to and to prevent them from eating those foods. Avoidance as well as some treatments can help protect children from having painful and life-threatening symptoms. Speak to your physician about strategies to prevent food allergies and if your child is prone to severe allergic reactions be sure to have medications readily available to treat the reactions. Also consider having a Medical bracelet indicating the allergies.