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World Allergy Week: Surprising Facts About Food Allergies

Food allergies are a complex and evolving health issues that can affect anyone, at any age.

 

World Allergy Week 2024, taking place from the 23rd to the 29th of June, focuses on raising awareness about food allergies, an important health issue affecting millions worldwide. While many people are familiar with common food allergens like peanuts, shellfish, and dairy, some lesser-known facts about food allergies might surprise you.

The Allergy Foundation of South Africa shares some of these food allergy insights that are important to know:

  1. Adults Can Develop New Food Allergies

“While food allergies are often associated with children, adults can also develop new allergies later in life,” explains Professor Mike Levin, CEO of the Allergy Foundation of South Africa (AFSA). “Factors such as hormonal changes, infections, or changes in the immune system can trigger new allergies. This phenomenon is known as adult-onset food allergies, and it can occur with foods previously eaten without any issues​.”

  1. Cross-reactivity with Pollen Allergies

“Many people with pollen allergies, such as hay fever, may experience oral allergy syndrome (OAS) when eating certain fruits, vegetables, and nuts. This happens because the proteins in these foods are like pollen proteins, causing the immune system to react. For example, individuals allergic to birch pollen might react to apples, carrots, and celery​.”

  1. Exercise-Induced Food Allergies

In some cases, physical exercise can trigger an allergic reaction to a particular food if consumed before exercising. According to AFSA, this condition, known as exercise-induced anaphylaxis, can be severe and is often linked to foods like wheat, shellfish, and celery. “Avoiding exercise for a few hours after eating the trigger food can help manage this condition​.”

  1. Hidden Allergens in Unexpected Places

Food allergens can be found in unexpected places, making it crucial to read labels carefully. “For instance, peanut oil might be used in cosmetics and wheat proteins can be found in some medications and even in craft supplies like playdough,” warns Prof Levin. “Cross-contamination during food processing is also a significant concern, as trace amounts of allergens can be present in seemingly safe foods​.”

  1. The Psychological Impact of Food Allergies

“Living with food allergies can significantly affect mental health and anxiety and stress related to the risk of accidental exposure are common, particularly among parents of allergic children. The constant vigilance required to avoid allergens can lead to social isolation and a reduced quality of life. Support groups and counselling can be beneficial in managing these psychological challenges​.”

  1. Increasing Prevalence of Food Allergies

Professor Claudia Gray, a Paediatrician and Allergologist at the Kids Allergy Centre and an allergy consultant at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital advises that the prevalence of food allergies, particularly in children, has risen steadily over the past few decades. “While the exact cause is not fully understood, factors such as changes in diet, environmental influences, and the “hygiene hypothesis”—which suggests that a lack of early childhood exposure to germs affects the immune system—are being investigated as potential contributors.”

  1. Food Allergies and Asthma Connection

Prof Gray states that there is a strong link between food allergies and asthma. “Children with food allergies are more likely to develop asthma, and having both conditions increases the risk of severe allergic reactions. Proper management of both asthma and food allergies is essential to reduce the risk of life-threatening anaphylactic reactions​.”

Food allergies are a complex and evolving health issues that can affect anyone, at any age. Understanding these surprising aspects of food allergies can help raise awareness and improve the quality of life for those affected,” concur Prof Gray and Levin. “During World Allergy Week 2024, the Allergy Foundation of South Africa hopes to spread knowledge and support the ongoing efforts to manage and potentially treat food allergies.”

 

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