How much do you know about food allergies?

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Two million people in the UK are estimated to have a food allergy, which is around 3% of the population. However, estimates range from 1-10% and food allergy is estimated to affect 3-6% of children in the developed world. If you looked at allergy more widely (and not just allergies linked to food) then this increases to around 20% of the population of most developed countries).

Depending on which source of information you look at there are between 10 and 14 major food allergens. There are many other foods which may cause someone to have an allergic reaction – the main ones are:

  • Cereals containing gluten
  • Tree nuts (this includes almonds, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts)
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish (crustaceans and molluscs i.e. crab, lobster, prawns, shrimp)
  • Egg
  • Fish
  • Milk/dairy
  • Sesame
  • Soya
  • Food additives (e.g. Sulphites/sulphur dioxide -these are preservatives that are added to food and drink to help them last longer)

Symptoms of a food allergy may present immediately after eating or coming into contact with the allergen or it can be days later. A food allergy is different from a food intolerance, which causes symptoms such as bloating and tummy pain, usually a few hours after eating the food you’re intolerant to.

An allergic response becomes anaphylaxis when it involves difficulties breathing etc. In extreme cases there could be a dramatic fall in blood pressure. The person may become weak and floppy and may have a sense of something terrible happening. They may also collapse and become unconscious. Anaphylaxis can be caused by things other than foods. Common triggers include medicines, latex, as well as insect stings from wasps or bees, for example. It is a potentially life threatening condition, and always requires an immediate emergency response.

The symptoms of anaphylaxis are often called the “ABC symptoms”:

  • AIRWAY – swelling in the throat, tongue or upper airways (tightening of the throat, hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing)
  • BREATHING – sudden onset wheezing, breathing difficulty, noisy breathing
  • CIRCULATION – dizziness, feeling faint, sudden sleepiness, tiredness, confusion, pale clammy skin, loss of consciousness

If someone around you has anaphylaxis, you should:

  • Use an adrenaline auto-injector (such as EpiPen) if the person has one – check you know how to use it correctly first
  • Call 999 for an ambulance immediately (even if they start to feel better) – mention that you think the person has anaphylaxis
  • Remove any trigger if possible – for example, carefully remove any stinger stuck in the skin
  • Lie the person down and raise their legs – unless they’re having breathing difficulties and need to sit up to help them breathe. If they’re pregnant, lie them down on their left side
  • Give another injection after 5 minutes if the symptoms do not improve and a second auto-injector is available

All of the following can increase the risk of a serious allergic reaction:

  • If you have poorly controlled asthma
  • If you have an infection, or have recently had one
  • If you exercise just before or just after, contact with the allergen
  • If you also have hay fever
  • During times of emotional stress
  • If you have been drinking alcohol
  • If you have taken a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug (such as ibuprofen)

If you, or someone you know, has a food allergy, there are many things you can do:

  • Check food labels and menus carefully to make sure they do not contain food that you/they are allergic to
  • Make sure people know about the allergy (Tell friends, family, school and/or work)
  • Carry two adrenaline auto-injectors (such as EpiPen) with you/them at all times if you/they need them
  • Find out/show people how to use an auto-injector and when to use it (if you need them)
  • Wear a form of Medical ID with your details listed to tell everyone of your/their allergy, this could be a bracelet or necklace
  • Suggest that the people that support you/them access training and consider obtaining a trainer auto-injector for people to become familiar with how to use them
  • If you have taken a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug (such as ibuprofen)

You can find out more online:

NHS guidance on Food Allergy –

NHS guidance on Anaphylaxis –

The Anaphylaxis Website –

The AllergyWise Website –

The EpiPen Website –