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Understanding Food Allergies: Symptoms, causes, prevention and treatment

Dr. Rashmi ByakodiOct 14, 2022

People often mistake food intolerance for Food Allergy. While food intolerance is a common condition that does not impact the immune system, a Food Allergy could lead to more severe symptoms; sometimes a life-threatening condition called Anaphylaxis. This article will help you understand Food Allergies and explain in detail what to do if you or someone in your family has one.

Food Allergy

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What are Food Allergies?

Food Allergies are the overreaction to the proteins in specific foods. These reactions can occur by a number of different foods or by different proteins in the same food. The immune system reacts to the food protein as an invader and releases antibodies called histamines to fight against the protein. Food Allergies are usually treated by avoiding the culprit foods, but in more severe cases, they can be treated with medications such as antihistamines or epinephrine (adrenaline). 

Types of Food Allergies 

Food Allergies are primarily of two types. 

1. Immunoglobulin E mediated Food Allergy (IgE)

It is the most prevailing type of food allergy. When your body reacts to a particular food, your immune system creates an immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody. The antibodies are a specific type of blood protein used by your immune system to identify and combat infection. The IgE-mediated allergic reaction generally arises within a few hours of eating the food. It may cause mild to severe symptoms like anaphylaxis. It is most prevalent in infants and children.

2. Non-Immunoglobulin E mediated Food Allergy (Non-IgE) 

In this type of Food Allergy, your immune system does not get involved in making IgE antibodies. Instead, other parts of the immune system respond against the apparent risk. This allergy is tough to identify since the symptoms manifest after a long time. This type of allergy usually involves symptoms like skin or digestive disorders, diarrhoea, and vomiting. Some of the examples of Non-IgE mediated Food Allergies include food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome, eosinophilic esophagitis, and allergic proctocolitis.

Causes of Food Allergy

The Immune system safeguards the body by creating specific proteins called antibodies. When you have Food Allergy, the immune system detects certain food as a potential threat to your body. In response, it prompts the cells to release an antibody called immunoglobulin E to counter the food allergen. 

On eating the same food next time, the IgE antibodies can sense it and warn our immune system to release a chemical known as histamine into the bloodstream to combat the threat and inhibit the spread of infection. These histamines cause allergies.

The Food Allergies are generally caused by certain proteins in the food that include the following. 

  • Milk

  • Fish

  • Eggs

  • Almonds, walnuts, pine nuts

  • Tree nuts

  • Shellfish

  • Soy

  • Wheat 

The other causes of Food Allergy include the following. 

  • Family history: You may be at a higher risk of developing Food Allergies if the same is prevalent in your family. 

  • Other allergies: If you have an allergy to one food item, you can be at an increased risk of developing an allergy to another. Likewise, if you are prone to other allergic reactions like asthma, eczema, or hay fever, you may be at a high risk of having Food Allergies too. 

Signs and Symptoms of Food Allergies

Allergic reactions can be mild, moderate, or severe. Typically, Food Allergy symptoms appear within a few hours of eating. The common symptoms of a Food Allergy involve the following.

  • Itching or swelling in the mouth, face, and lips

  • Hives (itchy, red bumps) around mouth and face

  • Tingling or itching skin

  • Coughing

  • Voice hoarseness

  • Wheezing/breathing difficulty (especially in children)

  • Diarrhoea or Vomiting (in infants)

Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction in which symptoms may include swelling of the throat or tongue (called angioedema), difficulty breathing, itchy rash, and low blood pressure. About 10% of people who have a Food Allergy, encounter it. This condition needs immediate medical attention, which can sometimes be fatal.

Diagnosis of Food Allergy

To diagnose Food Allergy, the healthcare provider may enquire about the following. 

  • How much time does it take to develop symptoms?

  • Which food items exactly trigger symptoms?

  • What are the symptoms that you face, and for how long?

If your healthcare provider suspects a food allergy, they may perform a skin test. During this process, they may perform the following actions.

  • Apply a small amount of different allergens to your skin.

  • Make minor scratches or pricks through the allergens.

  • Evaluate your responses to different allergens

  • Perform a Radioallergosorbent blood test (RAST). RAST is a test that identifies the levels of antibodies to different allergens in your body. Higher levels of any specific antibodies may indicate an allergy. 

Treatment for Food Allergies

The treatment of food allergies depends upon the severity of your symptoms and is usually done in two ways, i.e., avoidance and medication.

1. Avoidance:

If you are allergic to any specific foods, avoiding such foods can be the best way to prevent an allergic reaction. You should also read the label carefully before buying any packaged goods to make sure they don’t contain any allergens that may cause trouble. 

2. Medication

Medications for food allergy treatment are listed below.  

  • Antihistamines: Mild rashes, hives, and itching are treated with antihistamines. These medications block the histamine that causes most of these symptoms. They're available in both over-the-counter and prescription forms. 

  • Corticosteroids: For more severe skin reactions, your doctor may prescribe hydrocortisone cream to ease swelling, redness, and itching. But use it sparingly because prolonged use can cause thinning of the skin.

  • Epinephrine: If you have a history of anaphylaxis, you must carry an epinephrine auto-injector at all times. This medication blocks the release of chemicals in your body that cause severe swelling, constriction, or inflammation (breathing problems). It also improves your blood pressure by contracting blood vessels. It relaxes the airways too. 

How to prevent Food Allergy

Conventionally, there is no sure way to prevent Food Allergies. If you think you have a food allergy, talk to your doctor. They can help you determine whether you're truly allergic to certain food items and suggest the best course of action. However, you can adopt oral immunotherapy in due course. You need to identify and sidestep the foods that trigger an allergy to you. Treating the symptoms as and when they arise may be one of the best ways to prevent Food Allergy. 

Outlook for people having Food Allergies

Although you have a food allergy, you can still live a healthy life. All you need to do is prudently avoid all such food items and ingredients that cause allergies to you. You may be required to take additional supplements to replace the nutrients lost by preventing allergic foods. But before starting a new eating pattern, discuss it with your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

This section features some common queries and their answers pertaining to food allergies.

What are the most common symptoms of Food Allergies?

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Some of the most common symptoms of Food Allergy include the following.

  • Itching or swelling in the mouth, face, and lips

  • Hives (itchy, red bumps) around mouth and face

  • Tingling or itching skin

  • Coughing

  • Voice hoarseness

  • Wheezing/breathing difficulty (especially in children)

  • Diarrhoea or Vomiting (in infants)

What are the common treatments for food allergies?

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Primarily, there are three types of medications for Food Allergy, and they include the following.   

Antihistamines: Mild rashes, hives, and itching are treated with antihistamines

Corticosteroids: People having more severe skin reactions are treated with hydrocortisone cream to ease swelling, redness, and itching of the skin.

Adrenaline/Epinephrine: People having severe allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis are treated with epinephrine injections.

What causes Food Allergies?

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When our body’s defence mechanism, the immune system mistakenly identifies the proteins found in some food items as a threat, it releases a chemical called histamines to counter the food proteins. This chemical reaction causes allergic symptoms.

Sources 

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. It is based on several secondary sources on the internet. As this content piece is not vetted by a medical professional, please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.

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