Australia is often dubbed 'the food allergy capital of the world,' thanks to sobering statistics: food allergies affect 10 percent of children up to one year of age, between four to eight percent of children aged up to five years of age and approximately two percent of adults. This country also has the world's highest known incidence of peanut allergy, with three percent of children and infants affected.
Although those figures seem scary, it's important to remember that the majority of food allergies are not severe, and that deaths from anaphylaxis, the most severe kind of allergic reaction, are still rare. Also, many food allergies disappear with time – studies show that nearly two thirds of children will have outgrown their allergy by the age of four.
Understanding the signs and causes of food allergies, and tapping into the information and support available, is the first step in helping parents best protect their kids.
The top triggers
Having a food allergy means that when you eat a food containing that protein (allergen), the immune system releases chemicals, triggering symptoms that can affect your breathing, stomach and gut, skin and heart and/or blood pressure. Eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and milk are some of the most common allergens, along with many other foods familiar to allergy sufferers.
"The main foods causing food allergies are peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, soy, fish, shellfish, cow's milk, eggs and wheat," says accredited dietitian Kate Save. "Most children who are allergic to cow's milk, soy, wheat or egg will 'outgrow' their allergy; however, most of the reactions to the other allergens such as peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and seafood tend to continue on into adulthood. Peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish, sesame, and egg are the most common allergens in older children and adults."
There is currently no cure for food allergy. Treatment focuses on management, increasing community awareness and always being prepared in case of an accidental allergic reaction.
Spot the signs
It's important to know the signs of an allergic reaction so you can seek help fast and source an accurate diagnosis from a doctor.
"Indications of a food allergy can be very different from person to person," says Kate Save. "Most symptoms will occur within two hours of ingestion, but can start within minutes. Allergic reactions can affect the respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system and skin."
She adds: "Mild to moderate symptoms include swelling of the face, lips and/or eyes, hives or welts on the skin, abdominal pain, vomiting and/or diarrhoea. Severe symptoms are usually respiratory-related and include difficulty in breathing, swelling of the tongue, swelling and tightness in the throat, noisy breathing, difficulty talking or a hoarse voice, wheezing or a persistent cough, and dizziness or collapse. Young children can even become pale and floppy when an anaphylactic reaction occurs."
A food allergy will typically cause some sort of reaction every time the trigger food is eaten, says Save. "It is impossible to predict how severe the next reaction will be," she adds, "so as soon as the symptoms start, it's recommended to investigate it further, particularly due to the risk of anaphylaxis. It's important you consult appropriate health professionals to receive testing to determine the food allergy and implement a management plan."
Your GP will refer your child to an allergist or immunologist, and you'll have regular ongoing appointments with them to ensure continued care and monitoring.
Dietitians play a key role in educating parents and children on how to effectively manage allergies and to develop their understanding of how to plan an allergen-free diet, says Kate Save.
Never self-diagnose, and avoid restrictive diets, she adds. "Parents often implement long-term and unsupervised restricted diets due to the fear of food allergy reactions. Dietitians can educate parents to ensure diets are not restricted unnecessarily and explain the risk of malnutrition and other complications such as food aversion from restrictive diets."
Help is at hand
There's plenty of support out there for parents concerned about food allergies. Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia, the leading not-for-profit national allergy support group, advises parents to dial 000 if a child is suffering a severe reaction, and to seek advice from your GP or paediatrician if your child has immediate or delayed symptoms mentioned above. The organisation's website allergyfacts.org.au offers extensive factsheets, resources and advice.
The Sydney Children's Hospital Network has heaps of useful allergy-related factsheets https://www.schn.health.nsw.gov.au/fact-sheets/allergy-food-allergies-and-eczema