Eating is a trivial thing, except for people living with a food allergy. For them, it can be life-threatening.
Food allergy—the hidden threat
Food allergies affect 4 to 6% of Quebec's population. It is a reality that can cause a great deal of anxiety on a daily basis. The intensity of a food-related allergic reaction can greatly vary: sometimes mild and of little consequence, it can, in some cases, lead to death.
A food allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to a food or additive that normally does not cause a reaction in most people. The signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction vary from person to person and according to the food in question. Symptoms usually appear quickly after contact with the allergenic food substance. Some examples include: a rash, swelling of the skin, mouth or throat, coughing, difficulty breathing, vomiting and abdominal pain.
The causes of food allergies
Food allergies are part of what are commonly called "allergic diseases", which include eczema, allergic rhinitis and asthma, among others. If someone in your family has one of these, you are more likely to have an allergic disease, but not necessarily the same one. That said, it is not clear why some people have food allergies and others do not.
The main culprits—allergens
The term "allergen" refers to an element likely to cause an allergic reaction. In the case of a food allergy, it is the foods or additives that are to blame, and many of them can cause allergic reactions, more than 150, in fact. Nevertheless, allergic reactions are primarily due to nine foods:
- cow's milk
- fish, shellfish
Food additives (such as food colorants or sulfites) are fewer in number, but they can cause just as much damage.
It is important to be prepared when an allergic reaction occurs. Anyone with a severe allergy should carry an epinephrine auto-injector to counter the reaction immediately. Your pharmacist and your doctor can advise you on the safe and optimal use of this medication. When the time comes, you should administer one or two injections (depending on the circumstances) as quickly as possible, then go to the emergency room immediately for further medical attention.
Prevention is the most effective strategy to avoid the consequences of an allergic reaction. This means avoiding contact with the allergen at issue. This isn't always easy, but strict precautions can make all the difference. Traces of allergens can be found almost 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 ingredient labels on the products you eat.
- Check for special notices on product packaging, such as "Free of..." or "May contain traces of...".
- Make a list of the foods most likely to contain the allergen. For example, for a nut or peanut allergy: chocolate, breakfast cereal, cookies.
- Don't hesitate to ask questions when eating out or in restaurants.
- Take the time to wash your hands thoroughly before and after each meal or snack.
- Be careful not to contaminate utensils or surfaces with allergens if you are cooking for someone with a food allergy.
- If your child attends daycare or school, tell the adults in charge of your child about the allergy, how to prevent a reaction, and what to do if one occurs.
- Avoid places where there is an increased risk of contact with the allergen as much as possible.
- Remember that medication can also contain traces of a food or a food additive. Ask your pharmacist or contact the manufacturer's information service to check for allergens.
- Wear a MedicAlert bracelet to indicate that you have an allergy and make sure your family and friends know about your allergy and the location of your epinephrine auto-injector
Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about food allergies, or about the medications used for allergic reactions.