Maria Said, CEO, Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia
How do you define a food allergy?
A food allergy is an immune response, usually to a food protein. The body thinks that the protein is harmful, and starts to protect itself.
What are the signs and symptoms of a food allergy?
The signs and symptoms of a food allergy are generally associated with the skin, the gastrointestinal tract or the gut, the breathing system, and the heart and blood pressure system, the cardiovascular system.
Many people often confuse food allergy with a food intolerance, because some of the signs and symptoms can be the same. So people might develop swelling. Facial swelling is quite common. Or they develop a rash. Those signs and symptoms are classified as mild to moderate symptoms. However, any sign or symptom to do with the cardiovascular system, so your heart and your blood pressure, or your respiratory system, so if you find it difficult to breathe, if you keep coughing, if you have difficulty swallowing, if you have tongue swelling, for example. These are all signs of a potentially life-threatening reaction, and that needs to be treated as an emergency.
People can have a mild to moderate allergic reaction, or they can have a severe allergic reaction. Not everyone is classified as extreme when it comes to this, so this is why it’s really important for people to not just look at whatever signs and symptoms they have and do a self-diagnosis. They need to go to their doctor and be properly diagnosed.
A doctor will then either refer them to see an allergy specialist, where the specialist will do a blood test and/or a skin prick test. And then, with those results, they will talk to the patient about what signs and symptoms they have. And that’s how diagnosis is made. It’s not just made from a skin prick test, for example. Because, you know, if I talk personally for a moment, my son has a peanut allergy. However, he also skin prick tests positive to peas, which are another legume. But he eats peas all the time without a problem. So he’s not allergic to peas, but he’s sensitised to them.
What are the most common allergies?
The common foods that trigger 90 percent of allergic reactions in Australia are peanuts and tree nuts, such as cashew and almond, milk, cow’s milk, and egg, fish and shellfish, sesame, soy, wheat, and now lupin is a major allergen as well.
All of those things can be life-threatening?
Those things certainly can be life-threatening for a particular person. But in reality, any food can be life-threatening for a person who is allergic to it.
So we have people who have a life-threatening allergy to banana or celery or apple. But those foods that I mentioned earlier cause 90 per cent, the bulk of the allergies in Australia.
What’s the rarest food allergy you’ve seen?
We’ve had a little boy who’s allergic to rice, for example. But then, you know, you have such a simple food causing an allergic reaction, and then we move to the complexity of other reactions. So with some people, they can have wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis. So if they eat wheat, and they sit and play a game of cards, they’re fine. But if they eat wheat and go for a run, or a brisk walk to the bus stop, they go into anaphylactic shock.
So, you know, allergy is really complex, and this is why we need people in the community going to their GP and being referred to allergy specialists, if the GP feels that the person needs to have ongoing care. Unfortunately, I’ve been involved in seven coronial inquests for deaths from anaphylaxis. And almost all of those cases were people who were not under the care of a specialist and a GP who were giving them ongoing education about how to manage in the real world.
A message for people who may have an allergy
Our message to people who think they’re allergic or think they’re intolerant to a food is to have this discussion with your doctor. Talk to your doctor about what happens, the signs and symptoms, what you’ve eaten. The doctor can then come back to you with some advice on what you should do, whether you should maybe reduce the amount that you’re eating. Not everybody needs to have allergy testing, and, unfortunately, the word allergy is used very loosely in society. We have people who don’t like brussels sprouts who will tell you that they’re allergic to them. And that doesn’t really help our cause.
What about lactose intolerance?
People that are lactose-intolerant don’t have an allergy. Lactose-intolerance is very much about lactose, the milk sugar, and not the milk protein, which is what causes the problem for someone who is allergic to milk.
Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia is here to help you. Please reach out to us if you need information or support. Go to our website, allergyfacts.org.au, or call us on 1300-728-000.