Have you ever had a delicious bite followed by an itchy tongue, a tickle in your throat, or worse? Food allergies are a reality for many Australians.While some people might just experience mild discomfort, others can have severe reactions that require immediate medical attention.So, let's unpack the topic of food allergy what they are, how to spot them, and, most importantly, how to stay safe and enjoy your meals. 

What is food allergy? 

Imagine your immune system as your body's bouncer, diligently checking everything that enters (in this case, food) to make sure it's safe. In a normal situation, the bouncer recognises food as harmless and lets it pass through. But with a food allergy, the immune system mistakenly identifies a particular protein in a food as a threat, triggering an allergic reaction. This reaction can range from mild to severe, depending on the individual and the amount of food consumed. 

Signs and symptoms of food allergy

Food allergy symptoms can appear within minutes of eating the trigger food, or they might take a couple of hours to show up. Here are some common red flags to watch out for: 
  • Skin: Itchy rash, hives, swelling (especially around the lips and mouth) 
  • Stomach: Nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhoea
  • Respiratory: Difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing
  • Other: Dizziness, light-headedness, fainting (in severe cases, anaphylaxis) 
While most food allergies cause mild to moderate reactions, a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention. Here's what to watch out for: 
  • Sudden swelling of the lips, tongue, throat, or face 
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing 
  • Weak pulse or rapid heartbeat 
  • Dizziness or feeling faint 
  • Severe nausea or vomiting 
If you or someone around you experiences these symptoms, call emergency services (000) immediately. While waiting for help arrives, administer an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an Epi-Pen) if available. This is a lifesaving medication that helps reverse the allergic reaction. 

The usual suspects: Common food allergies in Australia

Australians love their diverse cuisine, but some foods can trigger allergic reactions. Here are some of the most common culprits: 
  1. Cow's Milk: This is a common allergy in young children, typically outgrown by adolescence. Symptoms can include skin reactions, diarrhoea, and vomiting.
  2. Egg: Another frequent allergy in children, egg allergies can cause a range of symptoms, including hives, wheezing, and stomach upset.
  3. Peanuts: Peanuts are a major food allergen, causing severe reactions in some individuals. Symptoms can range from mild skin reactions to anaphylaxis.
  4. Tree Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, and other tree nuts can trigger allergic reactions similar to peanuts. Be sure to identify the specific nut causing the allergy.
  5. Sesame: Sesame allergies are becoming increasingly common, causing symptoms like hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing. This is why you often see "may contain sesame" warnings on food labels.
  6. Soy: Soy allergies are more frequent in children, causing reactions like skin rashes and digestive issues.
  7. Seafood: Allergies to fish and shellfish can be lifelong and can cause severe reactions. Symptoms can include hives, swelling, and even anaphylaxis.
  8. Wheat: Wheat allergies can manifest as gluten sensitivity or coeliac disease, causing digestive problems and other health issues. 

Food allergy treatment: How are food allergies treated?

Unfortunately, there's no magic cure for food allergies. However, with proper management, you can lead a normal and healthy life. Here are some key strategies: 
  • Strict Avoidance: This is the cornerstone of food allergy management. Reading food labels carefully and avoiding trigger foods is crucial. Don't hesitate to ask questions when eating out. 
  • Allergy Action Plan: Work with your doctor to develop a personalised plan that outlines your allergy triggers, symptoms, and emergency response steps. 
  • Carry an Adrenaline Auto-Injector: If you have a severe allergy, always carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) and know how to use it in case of an emergency. 

Can your online GP help with food allergies?

Online consultations with a General Practitioner (GP) can be a convenient way to discuss potential food allergies and get initial guidance. However, for diagnosis and management plans, an in-person consultation with a doctor or allergy specialist is recommended. This allows for a thorough evaluation, including allergy testing, to identify specific triggers and develop a comprehensive treatment plan. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Demystifying food allergies

Can food allergies be prevented?

Unfortunately, there's no guaranteed way to prevent food allergies. However, research suggests early introduction of certain allergenic foods (like peanuts with medical supervision) to infants at high risk might be beneficial.It's important to discuss this with your paediatrician, as there are specific guidelines and protocols to follow. 

Can you outgrow a food allergy?

Some children, particularly those with milk or egg allergies, can outgrow them by adolescence. However, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and seafood are usually lifelong. Regular follow-up with your doctor is important to monitor allergies and adjust management strategies as needed. 

What does a positive allergy test mean?

A positive allergy test indicates that your immune system has reacted to a specific allergen. However, a positive test doesn't necessarily mean you have a food allergy.Doctors will often combine allergy test results with your medical history and symptoms to make a definitive diagnosis. 

Does cooking food remove the allergen?

This depends on the allergen.For instance, cooking peanuts generally doesn't alter the allergenic protein.However, milk proteins can be denatured (broken down) by heat, sometimes reducing the allergic reaction in some individuals.It's important to remember that even trace amounts of an allergen can trigger a reaction, so complete avoidance is crucial for those with severe allergies. 

The takeaway: Knowledge is power

Food allergies can be a concern, but understanding the triggers and managing them effectively allows you to live a full and enjoyable life. By being informed about the symptoms, seeking proper diagnosis, and practicing strict avoidance, you can keep food your friend, not your foe. Remember, don't hesitate to consult your doctor or allergy specialist for personalised advice and support. Happy (and safe) eating! 

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This content is created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. For emergencies please immediately contact 000.