Food allergies are no joke. While some people jokingly say that the idea of something breaks them out in hives, and there are certainly comedic sketches about the idea of puffy-faced people who were stung by a bee or who ate something that their body violently disagreed with, in the real world, allergies can be far more severe than that. Allergic reactions can be distressing, frightening, and incredibly painful.
What Are Allergies?
Allergic reactions to food occur when the immune system incorrectly perceives a food as a threat and reacts in an unusual way to it. Some allergic reactions are mild but some can be very serious.1 Symptoms of allergies include:
- Itching sensations around the mouth or throat
- Itchy, raised rash known as hives
- Swelling on the lips, face, tongue, and roof of the mouth
- Anaphylactic Shock (which can be fatal)
What Is Anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is a serious and often life-threatening allergic reaction. When someone goes into anaphylactic shock, their whole body is responding to the substance that they are allergic to. They may experience swelling of the airways so severe that they become unable to breathe.
It is possible to treat anaphylaxis, however, and most people who have been diagnosed with life-threatening allergies will carry an EpiPen or similar form of medicine which can be used to reduce the immune response and ease the symptoms.
Nevertheless, anaphylaxis is a very serious condition, and if someone is exhibiting such symptoms, then they require immediate medical attention.2
Common Food Allergies
A person can be allergic to almost any type of food. However, there are some foods that are more common allergens than others, including peanuts, shellfish, sesame, wheat, dairy, soy, and citrus fruits.3
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Some foods in particular—dairy, soy, and wheat—are common allergens for children, but as a child gets older, it is likely that they will outgrow those allergens. For instance, most children will outgrow a wheat allergy by the age of three, and milk allergies are common in infants but less common in older children.
In the developed world, three to six percent of children have some form of allergy.4 A lot of those allergies last only for a few years, but that does not make them any less serious during the time that the child experiences them.
Though most people will be diagnosed with allergies early on in their lives, it is possible for an allergy to appear later in life. It is also possible for someone to go through life without knowing they have an allergy and then to encounter it as a mature adult. This is becoming more common as people are traveling more and enjoying more varied diets.
Allergies Throughout History
There is a perception that food allergies are becoming more common. However, it is actually rather difficult for scientists to assess the prevalence of food allergies because the definition of allergy is quite blurry in society.
The medical community defines an allergic reaction as an IgE-mediated response to something, usually, but not always a food.5 Even then, because the definition of an allergy has changed in society, some doctors are now more liberal with the use of the word when talking to their patients, and they may describe an intolerance as an allergy simply to express to their patients that they should avoid this food. It’s important to note though that while food intolerances and sensitivities are real problems, they are not technically allergies. But because of the way that people casually call any food that doesn’t agree with them an allergy, it’s difficult to get an accurate idea of how many people have real allergies in the real sense of the word.
So, are allergies really becoming more common or are people simply talking more about them? To start, allergies are certainly nothing new. There are documented reports of allergies dating back as far as the ancient Greek and Roman times.
It wasn’t until the 1800s, however, that doctors started treating allergies as a clear category of a medical condition, and the first skin test for allergies was not designed until 1869.6
Now, allergen testing is more widely available, and information about medical conditions is also more widespread. This has created a phenomenon known as the “worried well,” where people who are generally well seeking a diagnosis for a minor, acute complaint.7 This uses medical resources and makes it hard for doctors to get a clear picture of how serious or widespread certain conditions really are.
Coping with Allergies
Being diagnosed with a food allergy can be quite scary at first, but it is a blessing in a lot of ways. The diagnosis means that you now know, with a good degree of certainty, what foods are and are not safe for you to eat.
Additionally, as awareness about food allergies has grown, the government has introduced strict rules regarding food labels designed to protect people with allergies when they buy pre-packaged food or eat out at restaurants.8
If you have an allergy, then the first step to managing it is getting in the habit of reading food labels and understanding what you’re looking for. While most big brands will display clear warnings which make it relatively easy to avoid products containing known allergens, people who have allergies to more unusual ingredients may need to learn the numerous other names some foods go by.
Some allergic reactions show up within minutes of exposure, but others can take several hours to surface, which means that it can be hard to identify hidden triggers.9 Keeping a detailed food diary can help with this, and it is something that many newly diagnosed allergy sufferers are encouraged to do.
If you suffer from an allergy severe enough that anaphylaxis is a risk, then your doctor will prescribe medication for you in the form of Epipens or another off-brand type of injector. You may also be given steroids or antihistamines.10
Most countries have similar rules when it comes to this, and even young children will be given injectors to use. It’s important that you (or the person with the allergy) carries their injector with them at all times, makes sure that the injector is undamaged and within its use-by date, and educates their friends, family, teachers, and others around them about how to use the injector in case of an emergency.
People who have very severe allergies will often wear medical bracelets that highlight their conditions along with other important information such as whether they have asthma, diabetes, or a heart condition. These bracelets can be invaluable for helping emergency responders provide the correct treatment.
Allergies require constant vigilance, and it’s easy to forget this. All too often, someone might get diagnosed with a food allergy during their childhood or teenage years and become complacent, especially if it’s something that they are rarely exposed to such as shellfish. This may lead to a potentially dangerous allergic reaction in the future, so not letting your guard down, especially if you’re in a new environment with unfamiliar food is important.
Check Food Labels
It’s vital that you check the food labels every time you buy something. Companies change factories regularly and sometimes change ingredients too. Your favorite chocolate bar might be safe today, but next week it could carry a “may contain traces of nuts” warning due to cross-contamination risk in a new factory.
Standard ingredients can vary from across brands too. The only food items that you can be completely certain will be free from potential allergens are products that are sold in a “free from” range. The good news is that more and more supermarkets are stocking such ranges and many now have dedicated sections for those who have specific dietary needs.
Even with good food labeling, there can be some risk. Over the years, cases of severe allergic reactions to improperly labeled foods have caused many people to question whether current food safety standards are strict enough.
Be Careful When Cooking at Home
If you have an allergy and you live with people who do not have one, then it’s important for everyone to know about the risk you face. Most allergic reactions occur following exposure to food that was thought to be safe, either through product mislabeling or through cross-contamination during food preparation.11
One common source of cross-contamination in food preparation, especially in households where there are one allergy sufferer and other people who eat foods containing that particular allergen. For this reason, it’s best practice to use different cutlery specifically for that individual to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. It is also a good idea to avoid sharing Tupperware containers, pots, and pans.
Carry an Allergy Card
There are food allergy cards which you can use to alert chefs and store owners about your allergy-related needs. These cards can be particularly useful if you are traveling abroad and can be printed in many languages. If you have an allergy, consider getting one printed so that you can demonstrate that you have a serious allergy.12
Complementary Remedies Treatments for Food Allergies
In recent years, there has been a movement towards using alternative and complementary therapies in conjunction with conventional medicine for added benefits. Additionally, there has been a lot of research conducted into the use of complementary medicine for food allergies in particular. Between 2002 and 2006, the use of complementary medicine as a technique for managing food allergies increased from 11 to 18 percent.13
Complementary and alternative medicine can include acupuncture, herbal medicines, allergen immunotherapy, and herbal remedies. Some of these approaches are outlined below.
When it comes to the management of seasonal allergies such as allergic rhinitis, there are a lot of options for symptomatic relief. Saline nasal irrigation, honey, acupuncture, and other pain relief, or airway clearing treatments have a fairly strong base of evidence, and aromatherapy fits that category.14
There are some caveats when it comes to using essential oils for allergies, however. One area where people could run into trouble is that a lot of aromatherapy treatments use nut-based carrier oils. Someone with a nut allergy would need to avoid those.
In addition, if someone has an allergy to, say, citrus, then they may need to be careful with essential oils from that family. There is a common misconception that essential oils do not cause allergic reactions because they do not contain proteins. This is not true.
While it is true that essential oils do not contain amino acids or proteins which are what typically trigger allergic reactions, they do contain small molecules that can bind to proteins in the body, and these haptenated proteins can create an immune response.15
Allergic reactions to essential oils are relatively rare, but they are possible. So it’s a good idea to do a small test application of any new essential oil before you use it and to avoid essential oils that are from the same family as the thing that you are allergic to.
If you do decide to use essential oils to improve your wellbeing and manage allergy-related symptoms, then it is important that you take good care of the oils that you are working with. Oxidized essential oils are more likely to contain allergens than oils that are comparatively fresh.16 If you’re not sure whether it will be safe for you to use a specific type of oil, ask your doctor first rather than risking an allergic reaction.
Those who do not have a food allergy may struggle to understand how much being afflicted with a severe allergy can impact a person’s quality of life. From early childhood when children with food allergies often have to sit at a different table for meals at school and, to finding social opportunities to be more limited as adults, the impact of food allergies is far-reaching.
Researchers have found that allergy sufferers experience a number of additional stresses, including anxiety about whether food is safe for them, higher food prices, and difficulty maintaining a healthy diet.17
A person’s personality will have a significant impact on how well they deal with those issues, with those who have a conscientious personality type being more likely to struggle to cope with the challenges that the allergy presents.18
Finding ways to cope with those stresses can be just as important as finding ways to manage the allergy itself. At the moment, medicine is a long way from completely curing allergies in humans. There have been some advances in the form of gene therapies that can “turn off” the allergic response, but to date, those treatments have all been proven effective only in the lab under controlled conditions rather than through human clinical trials.19
So, while people wait for such a treatment option, the main avenues for supporting those who are coping with allergies is by finding ways to limit exposure to common allergens and removing the anxiety that sufferers may face.
Aromatherapy, massage, and acupuncture are all useful for reducing feelings of anxiety. For example, lavender is often used to alleviate anxiety, and studies show that it has a clear impact on the nervous system.20
Though allergies have been around throughout history, and medical professionals continue to search for an all-around remedy until this can be offered to the public, it’s more important than ever to be vigilant about your own allergies—especially if they’re severe—and considerate about the possible allergies of individuals around you.
In addition to consulting with your healthcare professional about the best way to relieve your allergy symptoms and prevent severe reactions, consider trying out some complementary options like aromatherapy or acupuncture to potentially supplement your treatment regimen but to provide a range of other health benefits to your life.
Photo Credits: HBRH/shutterstock.com, DmytroZinkevych/shutterstock.com, Mkrberlin/shutterstock.com, Rido/shutterstock.com, SKDesign/shutterstock.com, AntonovaGanna/shutterstock.com, KasparsGrinvalds/shutterstock.com