Things You Didn’t Quite Know About Food Allergies

Time to read 4 min

Allergies, food intolerances and sensitivities are often combined under one blanket term, and they are also diagnosed and treated as such. For example, if you try a new food product and develop a rash immediately, is it a food allergy? Likewise, if another food causes your digestive system to go haywire, would that be an allergy too? We address these questions, and what food allergies are, how to work around them and treatment options. 

What is a food allergy? 

Before we address food allergies specifically, let’s talk about what an allergy is. 

  • An allergy is the immune system’s response to what it perceives as a harmful entity in the body. Food is a cause of allergies worldwide, but so are bee stings and pollen.
  • In an allergic reaction, the body’s immune system effectively turns against the body, and gives rise to hives and rashes in response to a seemingly harmless trigger.
  • Anaphylactic shock is the extreme case of an allergy, where the immune response is so potent, it could be fatal! 
  • A person going into anaphylactic shock will have swelling and hives in all parts of the body, including the throat, obstructing the air passages. 
  • Mild allergic reactions are treated using anti-allergy medication. Severe reactions require medical intervention. 

As the name implies, food allergies are caused because the immune system believes that a certain food product is dangerous to the body, and thus mounts a response against it. 

How is a food allergy different from a food intolerance? 

Lactose intolerance is the most widely known food intolerance around the world. In an intolerance, specific processes are at play. By contrast, all allergies are a consequence of antigen-antibody binding. Confused yet? 

An antigen is any foreign body, food included, that the body perceives as being foreign. It can be bacteria, it can be specific proteins in food, it can also be a foreign organ. When the immune system encounters a foreign body, it produces antibodies to counter the presence. The antibodies bind to the antigen, rendering it ineffective. 

  • Antigen-antibody reactions are the basis of our immune function. They protect us from disease.
  • In some cases, they may become extreme- allergies and autoimmune disorders are some examples of the immune system gone haywire. 

By contrast, a food intolerance is caused due to very specific reasons. In lactose intolerance, lactose sugars found in dairy pass through the intestines without being digested. This in turn causes symptoms such as bloating and gas, as well as diarrhea in some cases. Likewise, there are three different kinds of gluten reactions in the body: 

  • Wheat allergy, wherein the person allergic to wheat develops an antigen-antibody response when they eat wheat.
  • Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease. In people with this condition, eating gluten causes the lining of the intestine to be destroyed, leading to malnutrition.
  • Non-celiac gluten disease, in which the cause is unknown, but eating gluten causes a foggy brain, fatigue and abdominal pain. 

Hence, sensitivities, intolerances and allergies to food must be considered to be separate, and diagnosed as such. 

How is a food allergy diagnosed? 

A qualified doctor is the only person authorized to test for food allergies. Be prepared to answer a host of questions about your allergy, symptoms and frequency. Based on this information, the doctor will make a preliminary conclusion about whether you have an allergy or an intolerance. There are two definitive tests for food allergies: 

  • The skin prick test: Skin on the back is usually used for testing. You will be expected to spend a few hours at the clinic. Minute quantities of different allergens are introduced into the skin surface, and reaction is noted at frequent intervals.
  • ImmunoCAP: This test measures the specific amount of antibodies produced in the body in response to an allergy causing agent. It is a good lab test to determine which allergens are causing severe reactions. 

Can Food Allergies Be Treated? 

Is there a cure for food allergies? Not at this point, unfortunately. The best way to treat a food allergy is to prevent it beforehand. 

  • Read all food labels carefully to ensure the allergen is not present in them.
  • Always carry an epinephrine injector with you for first aid when you unintentionally consume an allergen.
  • Tell close friends and family not to cook with the ingredient that harms you, and if they have to, use separate utensils and clean the counter thoroughly.
  • Mild allergic reactions can be treated with medication, but obtain a prescription. 

How common are food allergies? 

In the United States, close to 10% of the population has a food allergy. In India, only 1-2% of all people have a food allergy. This may be due to the fact that culturally; Indian children are introduced to a variety of foods early on.  

However, allergy is no laughing matter. A severe immune response can kill you in a matter of minutes. If you know for a fact that you have an allergy, it is best to avoid the offending foods.

By contrast, a food intolerance is much less life threatening, but much more chronic. Avoidance of certain foods is the best way to address a food intolerance. Once in a while, if you do consume the food unintentionally, it will cause symptoms such as gas and fatigue, but it will not be a medical emergency. 

However, if you have symptoms such as poor digestion, fatigue and a foggy brain, consult a doctor to identify the root cause of the problem. 

 * Medical Disclaimer - The following information is for educational purposes only. No information provided on this website, including text, graphic, and images, are intended as substitutes for professional medical advice. Please consult with your doctor about specific medical advice pertaining to your condition(s). 

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