An allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system perceives a harmless substance as being a threat. The immune system then attacks the substance in the way it would to fight an infection or similar.
An allergic reaction could cause anything from a rash, hives (lumps) or diarrhoea to full blown anaphylaxis, causing swelling of the face and, as a result, difficulty in breathing. It is worth noting here that an anaphylactic reaction is not an allergic reaction to peanuts/nuts as my food technology teacher taught us (I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from correcting her!), but the way in which the body reacts to the specific allergen. I, for example, have anaphylactic reactions to strawberries, mushrooms, bananas, nuts and horses (although not eaten in Britain – I have had to be even more careful with my food since the ‘horse meat’ scandal!).
Another thing worth noting when talking about food allergies is the difference between allergy & intolerance, as these two are often used interchangeably. As a result of this there can often be confusion among the general public about whether a specific person has an allergy or an intolerance. This can be frustrating!
Where as an allergy involves the immune system, intolerance does not. Often (but not always) those with intolerances are able to consume small quantities of the food substance that causes them a problem. Those with allergies are unable to do this.
Another condition that is confused with a specific type of allergy is coeliac’s disease. It can be very frustrating for someone with a wheat allergy, when explaining this, to be met with the response ‘oh, so you’re a coeliac then’!!!!! It is worth noting that coeliacs probably have their fair share of the ‘oh, so you’re allergic to wheat’ response! So what is the difference? Well, coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the stomach lining. This reaction is triggered by gluten, the protein found not just in wheat, but also in barley & rye. The gluten can be removed from wheat so for those with this allergy it is still important to check ingredients of products labeled ‘gluten free’.
There are a number of ways to work out whether you have an allergy to food(s). There are two I am personally familiar with. The first is the ‘food diary’. With the food diary, you keep a written log of everything you eat & your symptoms. From this, you can go one of two ways, either – cut one product out of your diet & continue your log or, cut your diet down to the bare minimum. This would mean a diet of rice, freshly cooked meat and other basic produce, all for preparation at home. From this you slowly introduce one food at a time. If your symptoms return, it is possible you have identified an allergen. It is advised at this point to re-test this product after a couple of weeks to avoid eliminating foods from your diet unnecessarily.
The second way is to have a skin prick test, carried out by a Dr or allergy specialist. Here, a small amount of a substance is put on the skin of the inner arm. The skin is then pricked to allow the potential allergen to enter the body via the blood stream. If a hive appears this is classed as a positive reaction & you are allergic to that specific substance. You can then begin the process of cutting it out of your diet.
I could write a dissertation on this subject as I have lived it my whole life. All I can say is to read ingredients, learn as much as you can & don’t expect to be able to ‘get it’ all at once – often you’ll find that your allergens crop up in the strangest places (wheat in glacier cherries for example!).
On a side note, it may be worth checking out whether your cosmetics, skincare & bathing products contain something you are allergic to. I have written a separate blog post on this, which you can check out here.
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Useful resources –
Food Alergy and Intolerance, The Complete Guide to, Professor Jonathan Brostoff and Linda Gamlin. Bloomsbury, 1998. 380 pages. ISBN 0747534306
Intolerance and Sensitivity, Allergy UK. www.allergyuk.org/intolerance-and-sensitivity-menu/intolerance-and-sensitivity.
Severe Allergy and Anaphylaxis, Allergy UK. www.allergyuk.org/severe-allergy-and-anaphylaxis/severe-allergy-and-anaphylaxis.