Eating peanuts, nuts or seafood may seem trivial, but for people living with food allergies, it can be life-threatening.
Food allergy—the hidden threat
Food allergies affect between 4 and 6% of Quebec's population. It is a reality that can cause a great sense of daily concern. The intensity of a food-related allergic reaction can greatly vary—at times it can be mild and without major consequence, and in certain cases, it can lead to death.
The causes of food allergies
It is not quite known why certain individuals suffer from food allergies and others do not. However, food allergies are part of what is commonly called "allergic diseases", which include, among other things, eczema, allergic rhinitis, and asthma. You are more likely to suffer from an allergic disease if a family member suffers from one, but not necessarily to the same one.
The main culprits—allergens
The term "allergen" refers to an element likely to cause an allergic reaction. As mentioned earlier, in the case of food allergies, it is foods and additives that are to blame. Several foods and additives can cause allergic reactions. More than 150 foods can cause them. However, allergic reactions are primarily due to eight foods:
- cow's milk
- fish, and
Food additives (such as food colorants or sulfites) are fewer, but can cause just as much damage.
It is important to be ready to react when an allergic reaction occurs. Anyone who suffers from a serious allergy must always have an epinephrine auto-injector in his/her possession to counter the reaction immediately. Your pharmacist and your doctor can explain to you how to use it optimally and safely. When the time comes, it is necessary to administer one or two injections (depending on the circumstances) as quickly as possible, and then go to the emergency room immediately to receive other medical care.
Prevention is the most effective strategy to avoid the consequences of an allergic reaction. Thus, contact with the allergen at issue must be avoided. This isn't always easy, but strictly following certain precautions can make all the difference. Traces of allergens can be found just about anywhere without our knowledge. Constant vigilance is important.
Here are a few practical tips to avoid contact with an allergen:
- Take the time to carefully read the labels listing the ingredients of the products you eat.
- Check for special notices on product packaging, such as "Without..." or "Can contain traces of...".
- Make a list of the foods most likely to contain the allergen. For example, for a peanut or nut allergy: chocolate, breakfast cereal, cookies, etc.
- Don't hesitate to ask questions when you eat out or at a restaurant.
- Take the time to wash your hands well before and after each meal or snack.
- Be careful not to contaminate utensils or surfaces with allergens if your are cooking for someone who has a food allergy.
- If your child attends daycare or school, inform caregivers about the allergy, of the ways to prevent a reaction, and of the measures to take if one occurs.
- Avoid places that present the highest risk of contact with the allergen as much as possible.
- Remember that medication can also contain traces of food or a food additive. Ask your pharmacist or contact the manufacturer's information service to confirm that the allergen is not present before taking a medication.
Food allergies must always be taken seriously. Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about food allergies or the drugs used if an allergic reaction occurs.