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What causes food allergies?

One out of three people either claim that they have a food allergy or that they modify the family diet because a family member is suspected of having a food allergy. However, only about 5% of children have clinically proven allergic reactions to foods. In teens and adults, food allergies occur in about 4% of the total population. This difference between the clinically proven prevalence of food allergy and the public perception of the problem is in part due to reactions labelled as "food intolerances" rather than food allergies. A food allergy, or hypersensitivity, is an abnormal response to a food that is triggered by the immune system. The immune system is not responsible for the symptoms of a food intolerance, even though these symptoms can resemble those of a food allergy. For example, being allergic to milk is different from not being able to digest it properly due to lactose intolerance.

It is imperative for people who have true food allergies to identify them, prevent allergic reactions to food and store a list of their allergies, such as a tap2tag medical device, to prevent serious illness in the event of a reaction.

Food allergies involve two features of the human immune response. One is the production of immunoglobulin E (IgE); a type of antibody protein that circulates through the blood. The other is the mast cell, a specific cell that occurs in all body tissues but is especially common in areas of the body that are typical sites of allergic reactions; including the nose and throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.

The ability of a given individual to form IgE against something as benign as food is an inherited predisposition. Generally, such people come from families in which allergies are common, not necessarily food allergies but perhaps hay fever, asthma, or hives.

Before an allergic reaction can occur, a person who is predisposed to form IgE to foods first has to be exposed to the food. As this food is digested, it triggers certain cells to produce specific IgE in large amounts. The IgE is then released and attaches to the surface of mast cells. The next time the person eats that food, it interacts with specific IgE on the surface of the mast cells and triggers the cells to release chemicals such as histamine. Depending upon the tissue in which they are released, these chemicals will cause a person to experience various food allergy symptoms. If the mast cells release chemicals in the ears, nose, and throat, a person may feel an itching in the mouth and may have trouble breathing or swallowing. If the affected mast cells are in the gastrointestinal tract, the person may have abdominal pain, vomoting, or diarrhoea. The chemicals released by skin mast cells, in contrast, can prompt hives.

Food allergens (the food fragments responsible for an allergic reaction) are proteins within the food that usually are not broken down by the heat of cooking or by stomach acids or enzymes that digest food. As a result, they survive to cross the gastrointestinal lining, enter the bloodstream, and go to target organs, causing allergic reactions throughout the body.

The complex process of digestion affects the timing and the location of an allergic reaction. If people are allergic to a particular food, for example, they may first experience itching in the mouth as they start to eat the food. After the food is digested in the stomach, abdominal symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, or pain may start. When the food allergens enter and travel through the bloodstream, they can cause a drop in blood pressure. As the allergens reach the skin, they can induce hives or eczema, or when they reach the lungs, they may cause bronchospasm (wheezing or constriction of the lungs). All of this takes place within a few minutes to an hour.

If you do suffer from a food allergy, remember to detail which foods you are allergic to on your tap2tag medical device, so a first responder or paramedic can understand the cause of your reaction and treat you appropriately.

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