Sonali Verma (name changed) was always aware of her allergy to eggs. She could not eat them. But once, after boiling an egg for her son, the 35-year-old from Jaipur developed rashes and found her face swelling up. So, she stopped touching eggs. But little did she know that even smelling an egg could trigger allergic reactions in her. Not long ago, when she was in the living room, the faint whiff of the egg boiling away on the kitchen stove caused her lips, tongue and face to swell up. And this time, she had to be rushed to the emergency room.
It’s a common myth that food allergies are not serious. But experts say they can be life-threatening.
“Allergies need not be triggered through direct consumption. Just the smell or even a touch is enough to trigger a severe allergic reaction,” says Dr Shivani Swami, consultant, pulmonology, allergy and sleep medicine, Narayana Multispecialty Hospital, Jaipur.
Allergies and myths
1. Myth: Food allergies are not serious
Fact: Food allergies can be very serious and life-threatening
Dr Swami says that food allergies can be extremely serious and cause breathlessness and an anaphylactic reaction in some. “In many cases, they would require oxygen support and may also need ventilation in extreme cases. I’m currently treating two young men who have breathing difficulties but are unaware of their allergens. They do not know what triggered a severe reaction and are currently under observation,” she notes.
In Verma’s case, just the smell was enough to cause an anaphylactic reaction.
2. Myth: If you’re allergic to one food, you won’t be allergic to others
Fact: You can have multiple allergies
Most people who are allergic to one food may be allergic to other food as well, says Dr Swami, adding that it could also include air-transmitted allergies such as pollen allergy. “Those who are allergic to peanuts are often allergic to almonds as they all come under nut allergy,” she says.
A food allergy occurs because of the body’s reaction to food proteins. If someone is allergic to shrimp, he/she will be allergic to crab as well, since both contain the same protein, explains Dr Meghana Potluri, consultant, allergy and immunology, Manipal Hospital, Whitefield, Bengaluru.
3. Myth: Eating a little will not trigger an allergy
Fact: Small amounts can also trigger severe allergic reactions
If someone has been diagnosed with a food allergy, consuming even a small amount is enough to cause a severe allergic reaction, says Dr Potluri. “If someone has a shrimp allergy, they will have a reaction every time they consume it, irrespective of the quantity,” she points out.
Dr Swami also says that it is important for people to be aware of the ingredients in packaged food and she insists on checking labels before consumption.
4. Myth: Food allergy and food intolerance are the same
Fact: Food allergy and food intolerance are different
There’s a world of difference between food intolerance and allergy, says Dr Potluri. “A food allergy will take just minutes to cause reactions such as itchiness, rashes, swelling, breathlessness and anaphylaxis. Whereas intolerance might show symptoms overnight. A person with food intolerance may feel uneasy, bloated and have gastrointestinal issues,” she says.
According to Dr Swami, people often mistake dairy and wheat intolerance for an allergy. “Lactose and gluten intolerance are common, and people often come to us thinking they are allergic to it. When they have an intolerance, they have stomach upset and issues with digestion. In allergy, people find it difficult to breathe in case of an anaphylactic reaction and they land in the emergency room.”
5. Myth: Food allergies are rare
Fact: Food allergies are very common
Food allergies are very common across the globe, says Dr Potluri. “In India, the number of cases is not documented and hence we are not aware of the increase in number over the years. The OPD cases are increasing at a rapid rate,” she says.
According to Dr Potluri, the number is increasing due to urbanisation and exposure to different cuisines and exotic food at a young age. “More protein exposure and decrease in vitamin D can lead to severe allergies,” she says.
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, states that urbanisation is strongly associated with allergic illness.
6. Myth: Food allergies can be diagnosed through a blood test
Fact: Requires clinical examination and more accurate tests
A common misconception is that a food allergy can be diagnosed only through a blood test at a laboratory, without an allergist ‘actually examining the person’, says Dr AB Singh, secretary, Indian College of Allergy, Asthma and Clinical Immunology (ICAAI) and former scientist emeritus, Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB), New Delhi.
“The most commonly used test to diagnose food allergies is the simple skin prick test which gives you results within 10 to 15 minutes,” says Dr Singh.
He says another reliable type of test is the oral food challenge (OFC), where the person who is suspected of food allergy is asked to take small amounts of the suspected food allergen under medical supervision. “We further find out at what point the person begins to show symptoms of an allergic reaction. Based on the reaction, the treatment will follow.”