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Yummy treat? Indulge in walnut cakes and brownies if the nuts don’t cause allergy
Yummy treat? Indulge in walnut cakes and brownies if the nuts don’t cause allergy

Are you hypersensitive or allergic to a particular kind of food? Here’s how you can deal

Nearly a third of all adults claim they are “allergic” to at least one food. However, the popular idea of “allergy” differs from its medical definition. A breathless patient who casually drops the phrase “food allergy” will evoke the utmost panic in a trainee doctor. And for good reason. Food allergy, an immune response to allergens in food, can be fatal.

Most cases of “allergy” are usually gas, and food poisoning and infections from unhygienic fare. “Food intolerance”, e.g., the cramping or gas caused by milk in a lactose-intolerant person, does not involve the immune system. “Food idiosyncrasy”, like the asthmatic response to sulphite additives, is another non-allergic reaction to food components; it occurs through unknown mechanisms.

Fact check: Food allergy is rare. In the West, only two per cent of the population has it. One can be hypersensitive to any food, but thankfully, only eight are responsible for more than 90 per cent of all cases. The ocho picaros are milk, shellfish (crustacea and molluscs), eggs, wheat, fish, peanuts, soy and tree nuts (e.g. walnuts). The protein in these foods is the most common allergen.

Symptoms of food allergy commonly involve the skin, gut and respiratory system. Anaphylaxis is the most catastrophic allergic reaction, and manifestations include severe itching, hives, sweating, rapid swelling of the tongue and throat, breathlessness, very low blood pressure, unconsciousness and death. It is fatal in the absence of an immediate shot of epinephrine (adrenaline).

Less severe reactions include swelling or itching of the lips, mouth and throat; nausea, vomiting, cramping and diarrhoea, generalised itching, hives, eczema and redness of the skin.

A running nose, mild breathlessness and aggravation of asthma may also occur, but “food allergy” is a less common cause of asthma than quacks would have us believe.

How do you know you have it? The simple and quick answer is that you know it when you have it. If a particular food causes allergic symptoms on different occasions, the diagnosis is more likely.

Avoid that food until you consult a doctor. If there is any doubt, the doctor may order skin and blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Once you know you are allergic to a particular food, your life depends on two things: avoiding the food completely, and carrying a pre-filled epinephrine syringe to self-treat anaphylaxis after accidental exposure. Wearing a Medical Alert bracelet can be lifesaving.

RAJIV. M

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