Allergy Awareness week falls this year between 29th April and 3rd May, and this year Allergy UK is focusing specifically on air quality and the allergens that live around us. The link between poor air quality and allergy has been increasingly talked about in recent years and growing research shows this worrying connection that affects millions of people worldwide. However allergies are not just caused by airborne allergens and a growing number of both adults and children and now suffering from allergies that stem from food. So what better opportunity than Allergy Awareness week, to raise awareness of general allergies, but also specifically those associated with food. It’s also a great opportunity to discuss the differences between food allergy and food intolerance and pinpoint some of the main culprits that make allergy a modern epidemic.
Millions of people globally are affected by allergies of all different causations. According to the NHS it is estimated that about 1 in 4 people in the UK are affected by allergies at some point in their life and they are especially common in children. Some allergies that are diagnosed in childhood can be grown out of, just as some adults can develop allergies to things that they had previously never been allergic too. This is particularly seen in the growing number of adults that start to suffer with hay fever despite never having had a problem with pollen previously. In the case of food allergies, the incidence and diagnosis of these has doubled in the last decade and the number of hospitalisations caused as a result of food allergy reactions has increased seven fold. This is a worrying sign, indicating that food allergy specifically is on the increase, which is not only concerning from a public health perspective, but also a concern for the purse strings too, as it’s estimated that around £900 million per year is spent on allergies and its treatment in Primary Care.
What are the most common allergies?
The most common global allergies are a combination of both airborne allergens and food items. Common airborne allergies include pollen (from grass & trees), dust mite, animal dander and moulds which release spores that we then breathe in. The problem with airborne allergies is that unlike food allergies, they are not easily eliminated and in some cases are impossible to eliminate completely, unless you live in a purpose built house and never leave. Insect bites and certain household chemicals used in cleaning products as well as cosmetics can also be common allergies in some people and must be treated as suspects if you start to suffer with symptoms.
These types of allergies can often cause common symptoms such as allergic rhinitis, skin rashes of different varieties including eczema, itchy watery eyes and general breathing problems such as wheezing and constriction of the airways causing breathing difficulties.
Foods allergies can also cause similar symptoms although in addition can also commonly affect the digestive system in some way including bowel problems, stomach pains and nausea and vomiting. Common food allergies include shellfish, peanuts, eggs, soy, gluten and dairy (specifically lactose).
It is important to note that if there is a family history of allergies, then there is generally a higher risk that any baby born within that family may go on to develop allergies too, so if this applies to you always watch babies and children carefully for any early signs of food reactions and consult your GP should you have concerns.
Why are allergies on the increase in the UK?
The incidence of allergies, of all causes, is on the increase in the UK with more children than adults affected by allergies. Allergy UK advise that around 7% of children suffer with allergies compared to less than 3% of adults and this is likely to continue to increase. The UK actually has the highest incidence of allergy in the whole of Europe and is one of the top three countries in the world for allergy incidents. However research has shown that incidence of allergy is increasing worldwide, but primarily only in developing countries. Between 1997 and 2011 food allergies among children increased by 50%, yet there is still no definitive answer to exactly why this is and what is actually causing the global explosion of food allergy. These are worrying statistics and beg the question, why is this the case?
Unfortunately there is no conclusive answer to this question as yet, but research does suggest that there are a number of different factors influencing this increase in allergy. Specialists in the area of allergies have advised that the likely main reasons for this increase in allergy are likely to include the following factors:
- Increase in atmospheric pollutions – An increase in airborne chemicals, which we breathe in, is likely to be causing some peoples’ immune system to respond in a negative way.
- Mothers’ diet – Growing research shows that what women eat during pregnancy plays a big part in offering protection against allergies when the child is born. We also know breastfeeding plays an important role in this protection too.
- Hygiene theory – We now live cleaner lifestyles than ever before, which means the immune system has fewer germs to deal with but then over reacts when it comes into contact with some harmless substances.
- Exposure to Allergens - Higher exposure to substances which provoke an immune reaction.
In the case of food allergies, processed food consumption has risen dramatically over the years and with this comes the increased consumption of additives and reduced nutritional value. Some researchers have suggested that a lack of certain nutrients in the diet, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, specific antioxidants and also Vitamin D may play a part in the development of allergy. More research is needed here, but it certainly highlights the essential need for people of all ages, especially toddlers and children, to eat a variety of nutritionally rich foods and limit the processed ones.
It is of course much easier to influence our diet and the food we eat compared to airborne factors, so it’s important to make changes in the areas we can control easily first, before thinking how we can change some of the less easy factors that may be affecting symptoms.
Difference between food allergy and food intolerance
Having either a food allergy or a food intolerance can cause a variety of physical symptoms that range from the mild to the more serious. Both an allergy and an intolerance involve a reaction to food, however many people do not realise there is a difference between the two, as many people use the two words interchangeably.
Food allergies are caused when the body reacts to certain proteins found in food. The body’s immune system reacts abnormally to these proteins and identifies them as being harmful, which then causes an immune response. Chemicals are released by the body to combat and ‘fight’ what the body views as an infection and it is these chemicals that cause the characteristic symptoms of an allergic reaction, which in some cases can be fatal (as highlighted in the media quite recently with some very sad stories). Food intolerance is more common than a food allergy and does not involve the immune system in the same way as a food allergy does. An intolerance means that the body has difficulty in digesting and/or metabolising foods and thus may not only effect the digestive system, but can cause symptoms that involve many body systems such as the skin.
The symptoms of food allergy and food intolerance
In some cases, the symptoms of both food allergy and food intolerance can be similar and in other cases they can be very different, which can lead to confusion. Remember that everyone can react differently, so a reaction to a specific food in one person could cause a totally different reaction in another person who has an allergy to that same food.
Both a food allergy and food intolerance can cause a range of digestive symptoms, but severe allergic reactions can also cause symptoms such as anaphylactic shock, breathing difficulties, swelling of the throat and tongue and vomiting. More mild food allergies can result in symptoms such as itching in the mouth and throat, skin rashes and hives as well as nausea and diarrhoea. Symptoms that are more associated with food intolerance include abdominal cramps, constipation and diarrhoea, bloating/excess gas, lethargy, eczema, sinus congestion and headaches and migraines. Many people diagnosed with IBS can often have a food intolerance, which may be the sole cause of their symptoms or cause an aggravation of their symptoms.
When it comes to food intolerance, there is generally a much wider range of foods that could potentially be the culprit, ranging from certain fruits and vegetables, alcohol, meat, E-numbers such as sulphites, as well as dairy and wheat. Pinpointing what food is causing the problem can therefore be much harder with food intolerance, especially if you eat a varied diet. Intolerance testing can be helpful here, or keeping a food diary can also be beneficial in trying to decipher which food may be causing your symptoms.
The dairy and lactose dilemma?
Milk is one of the most common foods we hear about when it comes to food allergy and food intolerance and can present a problem to many people, although the exact prevalence is unknown. Lactose, whey and casein are the three main components of milk, with lactose often being the most problematic component when it comes to adverse reactions. Lactose is the main sugar found in milk and both a food allergy and a food intolerance to this component can cause similar symptoms, although an allergy to lactose will generally cause much more severe symptoms. Symptoms most associated with dairy allergy and intolerance include, abdominal cramping, bloating, excess gas and nausea or vomiting. Cows’ milk allergy is actually one of the most common allergies amongst babies and young children, but can often be grown out of as they get older. Unfortunately, despite this being one of the most common allergies in babies and children, it is not often diagnosed quickly, which can cause many weeks, months and even years of distress for both the children and parents.
It is important to mention, that people with a diagnosed allergy to cows’ milk, and specifically the lactose found in cows’ milk, will most likely NOT be able to use goats’ milk as a dairy alternative, as this too contains lactose, although in a slightly smaller amount. However, for people with a cow dairy or lactose intolerance, goats’ dairy products can often make a fantastic, safe alternative that is far better tolerated than cows’ dairy products and is just as nutritious, even for young children. One of the reasons for this, is that although lactose is still present in goats’ dairy, because food intolerance is associated with the difficulty in the digestion and breakdown of specific foods, if foods are easier to digest, this eases the load on the digestive system and foods can pass through more easily without causing a problem or resulting in symptoms.
Living with allergies of any kind is not fun and depending on the severity of the allergy it can sometimes be hard to live a normal life without the constant worry of a reaction. Often it is a case of managing your allergy and the symptoms the best you can and minimising the chance of coming into contact with the allergen you are affected by, which is easier said than done sometimes. Luckily the growing awareness of allergies of all types and the fact an increasing number of people are affected by them, means that more money for research will become increasingly available until hopefully one day we can start to see a reduction in this current allergy epidemic.