Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?
Food allergy is not the same as food intolerance. Food allergy is the body’s immune system reacting to a certain food protein. Food intolerance is when the body reacts to the chemicals in a food – rather like having side effects from medication.
Food intolerances affect around 10% of the population, in all age groups, while food allergies are more uncommon – with estimates of up to 8% of babies under 12 months, 3% of children under five years, and less than 1% of all adults.
Allergic reactions usually occur within 30 minutes of exposure, are usually quite obvious and can be severe. And sometimes only a small amount can trigger a reaction – for some children with a peanut allergy, just being near someone eating peanut butter can be dangerous.
A food intolerance reaction can be more difficult to spot, as it may not appear for 48 hours or more. Intolerance to food chemicals depends on the amount eaten, and how sensitive you are. It’s possible that anyone can react to food additives – it depends on the amount they eat!
Why do we get them?
Older children and grownups have more mature immune systems that are usually able to deal with diseases and harmful chemicals – but not always. Sometimes our body’s defence mechanism decides to fight something that is normally harmless, causing us to experience an allergic reaction. If it is a food item that your body decides is harmful, IgE antibodies are created to fight it, and if you eat that food again, your immune system releases histamine – and this is what causes allergic reaction symptoms.
Your baby or young child will be affected more strongly by food allergies because of his underdeveloped immune system. Intolerances come when the amount of food chemicals he is exposed is too much for his small body to deal with.
Intolerance symptoms can include:
- Skin problems: itching, swelling, rashes, hives
- Tummy problems: diarrhoea, vomiting, reflux, colic, bloating, irritable bowel symptoms
- Respiratory problems: breathing difficulties, stuffy/runny nose, asthma, frequent colds
- Frequent mouth ulcers
- Bed wetting
- Irritability and restlessness
Older children and adults with food intolerances may also suffer from migraines and headaches, lethargy or depression, anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings or PMT, memory and concentration problems, sleep disturbance or restless-leg syndrome.
Allergic reactions can cause:
- Skin problems – such as eczema, itching, swelling, rashes or hives
- Gastric problems – such as vomiting and diarrhoea
- Respiratory problems – breathing difficulties, hay fever, asthma
- Anaphylaxis* – leading to collapse and possible death
*Anaphylaxis is an extremely dangerous condition!
It is a severe allergic reaction that affects two of the body’s systems– the respiratory and the gastrointestinal or the skin – and can cause death in a very short space of time. Anaphylaxis can result from an allergy to insect bite or sting– usually bees, or an allergy to a drug – particularly penicillin, and can cause cardiac arrest within minutes. An anaphylactic reaction to a food allergy causes respiratory difficulties leading to suffocation.
If your baby has swelling of the face or lips, or has trouble breathing, or develops sudden and violent vomiting or diarrhoea, ACT QUICKLY! GET MEDICAL HELP IMMEDIATELY! GO STRAIGHT TO THE NEAREST HOSPITAL OR CLINIC! She could be having an allergic reaction and they will give her drugs to stop the reaction.
How do I know if my baby or small child has a food allergy or intolerance?
An initial minor reaction to a problem food can lead to a more severe reaction if your baby has the same food again, as his body will recognise the food as an allergen, and produce antibodies to fight it. So you need to find out for sure as soon as possible. If you suspect an allergy or intolerance, speak to your doctor, who can refer you to a specialist.
The specialist can do a series tests, including a skin prick test, and may suggest eliminating the suspect food from your child’s diet for a couple of weeks, then reintroducing it to confirm an allergy.
He will also suggest ways of adjusting your child’s diet, and tell you what to do if there are any future reactions. This could involve using an auto-injector – such as an Epi Pen – to give your child the hormone epinephrine to stop an allergic reaction if it begins. These injectors are specially designed for children and automatically give the correct dose.
Can food allergy be avoided?
Unfortunately it is almost impossible to completely avoid a food allergy developing, especially if there is a history of allergies in the family. Delaying the introduction of certain foods may help, but there is no clear evidence that this actually works.
Breastfeeding for as long as possible does offer some protection against allergies, so is a good way to help your child deal with potential problems.
When you begin to introduce solid foods, take care to introduce one new food at a time. That way you will be able to identify a problem food straight away. If there is no reaction after a few days of having that food, you can introduce another… and so on.
Which foods are the usual offenders?
With allergens this varies from country to country, as different nationalities like different foods – so they eat more of those! Japanese people eat more buckwheat so it’s a common allergen in Japan, whilst in Mediterranean countries lentils are major offenders.
90% of all food allergy reactions in Australia,for example, come from eight foods:
- Tree nuts (walnuts, cashews, etc.)
The chemicals that can cause food intolerances may be found in many foods – some naturally, like amines in cheese, chocolate and wine, while most others are the additives that are included in processed foods for colour or flavour, or to improve the shelf life of products.
This information presented to you acts as a guide which contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.
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