With allergies affecting about one in three New Zealanders at some point in their lives, it is likely we all know someone who suffers from them.
Allergy New Zealand allergy advisor Penny Jorgensen says allergy symptoms ranged from “very mild” to potentially life threatening.
An allergy is caused when a person’s immune system ‘overreacts’ to a substance, she says.
“In an allergic reaction, the immune system is mistakenly trying to protect the body from an external threat.”
The worst offenders
Globally, eight foods are recognised as causing most food allergies, she says: milk (dairy), eggs, peanuts, tree-nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.
“There are regional variations and any food could cause an allergy. Kiwifruit and sesame are common in New Zealand.”
Most allergies develop in early childhood. Children with a family history are at a higher risk of developing allergies themselves.
“Commonly we see eczema as the first indication. It is not an allergy in itself, but increases the risk of developing allergies.”
She says about 20 percent of young children have eczema at 12 months old, while 10 percent have food allergies “although many will eventually outgrow these.”
Most, but not all, children will outgrow their milk and egg allergies by five years of age, as well as soy and wheat. “But in the main, peanut, tree-nut, fish and shellfish allergies last for life and are the main ones seen in adults.”
Jorgensen says diagnosing food allergies is important, with a skin prick or blood test used to confirm the main trigger.
Intolerances not the same
It is also important for parents to understand that an intolerance is not the same as a food allergy, she says.
“An intolerance does not involve the immune system and does not run the risk of anaphylaxis. Most intolerances are dose-responsive. For example, a small amount won’t cause a response, and symptoms are delayed over a few days.”
Parents should also not delay introducing a food to an infant’s diet, or cut a food out without seeking medical advice.
“This can actually increase the risk of them developing allergy to it.”
For children diagnosed with allergies, medical support is vital.
“Because food allergic reactions can result in anaphylaxis, children should be assessed for their risk and given an anaphylaxis action plan, recommended to carry an EpiPen, and the family trained in recognising they symptoms and the emergency response.”
Mother of three Malena Penney, who blogs about her family’s experiences at Fun With Allergy Kids, says living with food allergies has a huge emotional toll.
“Just one bite”
Penney says “nearly every single allergy family” have been told “just one bite won’t hurt”.
“Allergic reactions really do happen to very tiny doses of food. A crumb of gluten or chopped nut in the wrong hands can be deadly.”
She says most allergy families have been in the “awkward situation” of being told something is fine for them, but not being sure themselves of how safe it actually is.
“We have personally been caught out when people have made a cake without dairy and egg, but then icing has been made with dairy-containing margarine.”
She says people catering for those with allergies need to be especially careful.
“Although it is really nice to surprise those with allergies with what you think is an allergy-friendly cake, it’s way less stressful for everybody if you tell them you’d like to cater for them and ask if there is anything they need to know.”
Penney suggests that families who have just been diagnosed with allergies spend time educating themselves on how to keep their children safe.
“Then start looking for external support. There are lots of great support groups on social media and lots of bloggers publishing allergy-friendly recipes for free.”