Raising awareness about food allergies

All Woman

FOOD allergies are on the rise, not just in Jamaica, but around the world. Not only has the number of people with allergies increased significantly over the last five decades, but so has the number of foods that people are becoming allergic to.

Researchers are not exactly sure why this is happening, and many theories have been put forward to support claims such as the increase in genetically modified foods, and the increasingly sterile conditions in which humans live. Regardless of the cause, food allergies are a serious medical condition that can quickly become life threatening, and you need to be able to spot the signs and take quick action if you have one.

Doctor of internal medicine, Dr Samantha Nicholson-Spence, explains that an allergy is what happens when your body reacts strongly and negatively to a substance that is typically harmless. This can be things in your environment, such as pollen dust and stings from insects, and it can also be the foods you eat, she says.

“The most common food allergens tend to be dairy, soy products, shellfish, nuts, eggs and wheat products, but there are other things that people are allergic to, such as certain fruits,” Dr Nicholson-Spence tells All Woman. “Allergies can manifest in many ways, and can be very mild, or severe to the point where they become life threatening.”

She says the most common signs of a mild food allergy are swellings, usually on the face, and hives.

“So you can get a rash that is usually very itchy, and it appears as welts on the skin. These can occur all over the skin, and they tend to occur pretty close to when you were exposed, usually within an hour or so,” she clarifies.

While these symptoms are not necessarily life threatening, the doctor warns that allergic reactions can quickly develop into anaphylaxis, which can be deadly.

“Allergies can become life threatening if you develop swelling in your airway — your throat becomes swollen, closes off and then you cannot breathe. It's a very real threat,” she cautions. “You can also have your blood vessels widening so much that your blood pressure falls precipitously, and, of course, that's too low to sustain you, so you can die from that.”

The doctor says a medication called diphenhydramine (found locally in products such as DPH) is effective in treating food allergies. It's also important that a person experiencing an allergic reaction seeks immediate medical attention.

“There can also be swelling of the lips only, and swelling of the eyes only. If the swelling is just confined to those areas, then it won't be life threatening, but you don't know if it will stay that way,” she says. “You have to seek attention if there is any progression, and oftentimes you don't have much time. If it's something you ate, you are constantly being exposed to it until it is expelled from your body. If it is a medication, it depends on how long the drug stays in your system.”

The doctor notes that it's important for patients to keep track of any foods that they have had bad reactions to.

“You also need to remember the names of any medications to which you had severe reactions, so that doctors do not inadvertently re-expose you to the allergen, or any other medications in that family of drugs,” she recommends.

“If you have known life-threatening allergies, you should be walking around in a MedicAlert bracelet with your allergy, and also an EpiPen (a self-administered injection with epinephrine which is used to treat life-threatening allergies) so that you can self-treat when necessary,” she adds.

The internist laments, however, that EpiPens are not widely available locally, as it is not carried by the local distributors. As such, she says it's extremely important that people with food allergies be vigilant in their consumption.

“You have to read labels. Most food labels, especially those coming from the States, always have allergy information below the list of ingredients. You can't assume that something doesn't have your particular allergen because of what it is, because they still may have traces, or were produced in facilities that also produce things you're allergic to,” she says. “For example, whey, which is a milk product, may be found in foods that you would assume to be dairy-free, such as ramen noodles. You need to be vigilant, and educate yourself on some of the scientific names of ingredients that are used in the food.”

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