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Food Allergies

Overview :

Food allergies are often confused with food intolerance. However, the two conditions have different causes and produce different symptoms. A food allergy is also known as food hypersensitivity. The allergy is caused when a person eats something that the immune system incorrectly identifies as harmful.

Food allergies

About 4% of adults have food allergies according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The condition affects approximately 6 to 8% of children age 4 and younger.

The immune system works to protect the body and creates food-specific antibodies. The antibodies are proteins that battle antigens, substances that are foreign or initially outside the body. The introduction of an antigen produces the immune response. Antibodies are created to destroy the antigen or counteract its effectiveness.

The food that triggered that reaction is called an allergen. The antibodies are like an alarm system coded to detect the food regarded as harmful. The next time the person eats that food, the immune system discharges a large amount of histamine and chemicals. This process meant to protect the body against the allergen causes an allergic reaction that can affect the respiratory tract, digestive tract, skin, and cardiovascular system.

Allergic reactions can occur in minutes or in up to two hours after the person ate the food. Symptoms include swelling of the tongue, diarrhea, and hives. In severe cases, the allergic reaction can be fatal. The most severe reaction is anaphylaxis, which could be life-threatening.

Food intolerance

While food allergies involve the immune system, food intolerance is not related to the immune system. For example, a person who is lactose intolerant has a shortage of lactose, the digestive enzyme that breaks down the sugar in milk and dairy products. That person could experience stomach pain or bloating several hours after drinking milk.

People who are food-intolerant can sometimes consume that food and not experience intolerance symptoms. Those diagnosed with food allergies must avoid the foods that produce the allergic reactions.

Allergy-producing foods

Although approximately 160 foods produce allergic reactions, approximately 90% of reactions are caused by some or all items within eight food families. These are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. These foods can cause severe reactions. The most adverse reactions are caused by peanuts and tree nuts. According to NIAID, about 0.6% of Americans are impacted by peanut allergies. Approximately 0.4% of Americans have allergic reactions to tree nuts.

Food allergy demographics

Most children have allergies to eggs, milk, peanuts or tree nuts, and soy, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA). The young generally outgrow their allergies. They are more likely to outgrow milk and soy allergies, according to NIAID. However, children and adults usually allergic to peanuts and tree nuts for life. The most frequent causes of food allergies in adulthood are peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.

Allergies are hereditary. There is a tendency for the immune system to create IgE antibodies in people with family histories of allergies and allergic conditions like hay fever and asthma, according to NIAID. The likelihood of a child having food allergies increases when both parents are allergic.

Furthermore, people are allergic to the foods that are eaten frequently in their countries. A rice allergy is more common in Japan, and codfish allergies occur more in Scandinavian countries, according to NIAID.

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