Food allergies and anaphylaxis

An allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system reacts inappropriately in response to the presence of a substance that it wrongly perceives as a threat. The body doesn’t react to the irritant directly, but to the histamine released by cells damaged through the immune response on subsequent exposure.  Anaphylactic shock is an extreme allergic reaction.

Allergies are very common in children and can cause anything from a ‘tingly tongue’ to a fatality. Allergy UK have estimated that a staggering 4 in 10 people in Britain will suffer an allergic reaction at some point in their lifetime.

Over five thousand people need treatment in hospital for severe allergic reactions each year in the UK, and in some cases these are fatal – causing an average of 10 deaths annually.  Experts believe the majority of these deaths and hospital admissions are avoidable, and some are a result of people being given incorrect information about ingredients.

Food labeling

From the end of 2014 Restaurants and takeaways across Europe have been required by law to inform customers if their food contains ingredients known to trigger allergies. Staff must provide information on 14 everyday allergens.

By law, potential food allergens used as ingredients or processing aids must also be declared on packaging or at the point of sale. Under the EU FIC Food Information for Consumers Regulation, customers must be told if their food contains any of the following:

  • Celery – including any found in stock cubes and soup
  • Cereals containing gluten – including spelt, wheat, rye, barley
  • Crustaceans – eg crabs, lobster, prawns and shrimp paste
  • Eggs – including food glazed with egg
  • Fish
  • Lupin – can be found in some types of bread, pastries, pasta
  • Milk
  • Molluscs – mussels, land snails, squid, also found in oyster sauce
  • Mustard
  • Nuts – for example almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamia
  • Peanuts – also found in groundnut oil
  • Sesame seeds – found in some bread, houmous, tahini
  • Soya – found in beancurd, edamame beans, tofu
  • Sulphur dioxide – used as a preservative in dried fruit, meat products, soft drinks, vegetables, alcohol.

Common triggers for allergic reactions

Anything can trigger an allergic reaction. However most common causes are foods such as peanuts, tree nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, cashews, and Brazil nuts), sesame, fish, shellfish, dairy products and eggs. Non-food causes include wasp or bee stings, natural latex (rubber), penicillin or any other drug or injection. Exercise can also trigger a delayed allergic reaction following exposure to an allergen.

Going abroad

The summer holidays will soon be here too, and whilst it’s easy to check the ingredients in your own language, it’s tricky when you are travelling abroad.  If you have a food allergy, that is a risk that you just can’t take, Allergy UK now provide allergy information cards in different languages.  To find out more and stay safe on your travels, visit https://www.allergyuk.org/get-help/translation-cards

How to recognise a serious allergic reaction

Common symptoms include:

  • Generalised flushing of the skin
  • A rash or hives anywhere on the body
  • A feeling of anxiety or ‘sense of impending doom’
  • Swelling of throat and mouth and difficulty in swallowing or speaking
  • Alterations in heart rate – usually a speeding up of the heart
  • Severe asthma attack which isn’t relieved by their inhaler
  • Acute abdominal pain, violent nausea and vomiting
  • A sudden feeling of weakness followed by collapse and unconsciousness

A patient is unlikely to experience all of the above symptoms.

How to Treat Anaphylaxis

The key advice is to avoid any known allergens where possible. If someone is having a mild allergic reaction, an antihistamine tablet or syrup can be very effective. However, the medication will take at least 15 minutes to work. If you are concerned that the reaction could be systemic (all over) and life threatening, use an adrenaline auto-injector immediately. It is far better to give adrenaline and not to have needed it, than to give it too late.

Epipen, have launched a version that only needs to be held in place for 3 seconds. Holding it in place for longer will not do any harm and there are many of the older version still in circulation that need to be held in place for a full 10 seconds.

 

Emma Hammett
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