Food allergies are a scary thing. The idea that one tiny wayward nut could cause an otherwise happy human to go into anaphylaxis is enough to alarm anyone. That’s why those with food allergies have to take the utmost caution to ensure they get through all their meals unscathed.
It is difficult to quantify all the different types of food allergies that exist in the world, as many people tend to confuse them with food intolerance. To clarify, a food allergy occurs when a person suffers an adverse immune response to something within a particular food item, typically a protein. The body mistakenly classifies the protein as detrimental, and responds by releasing antibodies to fight it. According to Dr. Luke Guo, medical officer of Beijing Vista Medical Center, the most common food allergies are eggs, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts—pecans and almonds, for example—fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. People can also be allergic to types of fruits, such as cantaloupe and honeydew melon.
Food intolerance, on the other hand, is when a person has an adverse digestive reaction to a food item because his/her body is unable to digest or break it down. The most common of these is lactose intolerance.
The Signs of an Allergic Reaction
When a person is exposed to a food that he or she is allergic to, the body reacts by releasing histamine. Where this substance is released in the body determines the types of allergic symptoms you experience. If released in the intestine, for example, you may experience abdominal cramps, diarrhea and bloating. “Everyone’s symptoms are different,” says Dr. Guo. “It could involve one or a combination of the following: hives or rash, trouble breathing, congestion, itchiness, light-headedness and swelling of the hands, feet, face and lips. In severe cases, respiratory failure, swelling of the tongue and airways and anaphylaxis may occur, though these, thankfully, are rare.”
Although allergy tests can be carried out (though with some difficulty Dr. Guo hastens to add), most of us discover what foods we are allergic to the hard way. Initial exposure to the offending food is called the “sensitization stage,” at which time the body produces specific IgE antibodies to the “harmful” proteins. Only subsequent exposure to these same proteins results in allergic symptoms.
Food allergies are especially common in those with atopic syndrome, in other words, those who already suffer from allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema. It is also worth noting that it is not uncommon for people to outgrow their food allergies.
How to Cope with Food Allergies
Those with known food allergies should always carry medications such anti-histamines with them at all times, if only to control the symptoms and buy time to get to a hospital.
Meanwhile, those with more severe food allergies are highly advised to go one step further by purchasing an EpiPen, which can deliver a life-saving shot of epinephrine to the body should circumstances become dire. This is especially true for those suffering from peanut allergies or asthma who are at a higher risk for anaphylaxis. EpiPens cannot be found in Beijing pharmacies and must either be hand carried from abroad or ordered through a clinic or hospital. “Vista carries a small supply of EpiPens and we can order them for patients if required,” says Dr. Guo. “EpiPens are very easy to use and are absolutely necessary for those with severe allergic responses.”