By: Vera Alves
Do you get the impression that more children these days have allergies than when you were in school and none of your colleagues had to be nut, dairy or gluten free?
Allergies are on the rise and scientists have been trying to figure out the reasons behind this spike in recent years.
“Food allergy is on the rise and has been for some time,” nurse adviser for Allergy UK Holly Shaw recently told The Guardian.
It is no small issue. On top of the terrible social pressure an allergy sufferer can feel and the anxiety that comes with constantly having to worry about what they touch or eat, there is also a very real threat to their life.
Food allergies have no known cure, but some recent scientific studies have shown promising results with the use of probiotics and medication.
Desensitisation is also showing promising results. It involves exposing a person to a certain allergen in tiny amounts in a controlled environment.
Despite the medical progress, allergies are definitely on the rise in the western world.
“If you think in terms of decades, are we seeing more food allergies now than we were 20 or 30 years ago? I think we can confidently say yes,” Adam Fox, consultant paediatric allergist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals, told The Guardian.
“If you look at the research from the 1990s and early 2000s, there is pretty good data that the amount of peanut allergy trebled in a very short period,” he added.
Not only are allergies growing, but the severity of reactions is on the rise too, with more people rushing to A&E in anaphylactic shock.
While there is no definitive explanation for what’s behind this rise in allergies, scientists have a few theories.
Lack of sunlight
One of the potential reasons for this spike in allergies could be lifestyle-related, due to a lack of vitamin D. We’re spending less time outdoors and this decrease in exposure to sunlight could be behind our body’s inability to develop the necessary antibodies to trigger our immune cells.
According to The Guardian, Prof Carlos Camargo in the US and Prof Katie Allen and her colleagues in Australia have looked into how a lack of exposure to sunlight, and the vitamin D deficiency that comes from it, can make infants three times more likely to have an egg allergy and 11 times more likely to have a peanut allergy.
Gut health and pollution are also big factors that experts are looking into as potential causes.
In terms of gut health, it’s all about maintaining the biodiversity of the microbiota.
This means our environment can’t be too clear or sterile.
According to Prof Graham Rook, an immunologist at University College London’s Centre for Clinical Microbiology, the “crucial thing is contact with green space and the natural environment, and avoidance of antibiotics, and of things that limit that transmission of maternal microbiota to the infant. And we need a varied diet with many different fruits and vegetables, because these things maintain the biodiversity of the microbiota.”
Delays in introduction to allergens
For years, parents were advised to delay introducing allergens such as peanuts to babies’ diets. Recently, that advice has been changed, after studies found that children exposed to peanuts earlier in life were less likely to develop an allergy to them.
Prof Gideon Lack of King’s College London found that of the children who avoided peanuts, 17 per cent developed a peanut allergy by the age of five years.
However, it’s not as simple as saying that introducing foods early will remove the risk of allergy. According to Fox, parents should be advised to follow the guidelines established by the World Health Organization. “They should not delay the introduction of allergenic foods such as peanut and egg beyond that, as this may increase the risk of allergy, particularly in kids with eczema’, he said.
Genes are also thought to play a role in the development of allergies; however, to a lesser degree than a person’s environment.
For people with allergies and parents of small children with allergies, every day involves some degree of anxiety.
“The real challenge of managing kids with food allergies is it’s really hard to predict which of the children are going to have the bad reactions, so everybody has to behave as if they might be that one,” Fox said.
If you suspect your child might have an allergy, the most important thing is to see a doctor for relevant tests. If your suspicion happens to be wrong and you unnecessarily remove an allergen from their diet, you could unknowingly be contributing towards a food intolerance.
According to Allergy NZ, food allergies affect up to 10 per cent of infants in New Zealand, with milk, eggs and peanuts being the main foods involved. Up to 5 per cent of the overall population are likely to have a food allergy.
The good news? Death from food allergies is still extremely rare and children often outgrow their allergies later in childhood.
Source: NZ Herald