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What is a food allergy?

Written by Marty

A food allergy happens when the body’s immune system reacts abnormally to specific foods.1 Foods that trigger allergic reactions are called allergens.  Food allergies are more common in children than adults: 1 in 12 young children are estimated to suffer from a food allergy.2

Some foods are more likely to cause allergic reactions. These foods are called the major 14 allergens:3

  • Celery
  • Cereals containing gluten
  • Crustaceans- such as prawns, crayfish, crab
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Lupin (part of the legume family, related to peanuts)
  • Milk and milk-based products
  • Molluscs (such as snails, clams, squid)
  • Mustard
  • Tree nuts i.e. Almond, Hazelnut, Walnut, Cashew, Pecan, Brazil, Pistachio, Macadamia 
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soya
  • Sulphur dioxide and sulphites

Symptoms of food allergy

Symptoms of food allergies can vary, but they often include:

  • digestive problems (e.g. stomach ache, vomiting, colic, diarrhoea or constipation)
  • respiratory problems (e.g. runny or blocked nose, wheezing and sneezing)
  • skin reactions (e.g. red itchy rash or swelling of the lips, face and around the eyes or eczema that doesn’t improve with treatment)4

Allergic reactions can be described as ‘immediate’ or ‘delayed’. If they’re immediate, symptoms can occur within minutes or up to two hours after eating the allergen. If they’re delayed, it can take a few hours or even days for the symptoms to occur, which can make it difficult to diagnose.3

Very occasionally, symptoms can become severe, leading to breathing problems, swelling of the throat, and anaphylaxis (that’s a severe allergic reaction requiring emergency medical help immediately).1

Although symptoms can be similar, a food allergy should not be confused with a food intolerance.  An intolerance is caused by the body having difficulties digesting certain foods and does not involve the immune system4.

If you think your child has a food allergy or intolerance, you should talk to your healthcare professional. To find out if your child might have a food allergy or intolerance, your healthcare professional may ask you a number of questions, such as: 5

  • When did the symptoms start?
  • What symptoms have occurred?
  • How severe are they?
  • How long do they last?
  • What foods do you suspect?
  • What foods have you have tried avoiding?

It can be helpful to take a diary of symptoms with you showing what reactions happened and what foods were eaten at the time. They may also ask if you, your partner or other children have any allergies.5


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