Abu Dhabi: Food allergy is a health problem which seems simple but in reality is of real concern to sufferers and their families. Moreover, food allergies can cause significant problems that should not be taken lightly.
Simple types of food that people eat daily can cause symptoms ranging from eczema to migraine to irritable bowel syndrome or even bloating and asthma.
"People who have food allergies may have severe headaches, migraines, tiredness, fatigue, weight problems, eczema, psoriasis, asthma, runny nose, sinus congestion, digestive disorders, anxiety, and depression," said Dr Ehab Yousuf, consultant allergist.
"Sometimes lips immediately balloon up when one eats shellfish. Others might feel sick and vomit after eating an egg," he added.
"Food allergy can appear randomly and many people are unaware that they have an intolerance to ingredients that are included in foods that many like to eat such as pizza, cake, bread, milk, dairy products, eggs, fish and seafood, chocolate, citrus fruits, soy products, corn, nuts, berries and pies," said Dr Yousuf.
Some patients believe that food allergies are simply due to an unhealthy lifestyle, in addition to processed foods.
"Food sensitivity, food intolerance, food allergy are all names used interchangeably for any adverse reaction caused by eating a food," said Dr Yousuf.
A number of food intolerance test labs have become more widespread across the UAE as people have become more aware of such an issue.
"An allergy is a hypersensitive reaction to a normally harmless substance," said Dr Yousuf, adding that one in every six children worldwide is allergic to one or more substances.
"Common allergens include pollen, animal dander, house dust, feathers, mites, chemicals, and a variety of foods," said Dr Yousuf.
"Allergic reactions can occur immediately, or they can be delayed and take days to surface", said Dr Ahmad Al Ali, a private practitioner.
Dr Al Ali warned that a delayed allergic reaction can make it more difficult to pinpoint the allergen.
"The most common symptoms of an allergic reaction are respiratory congestion, eye inflammation, swelling, itching, hives, stomach ache and vomiting," he added.
"Classic food allergy involves the immune system where the body recognises a foreign substance in the food and produces antibodies known as immunoglobulins (IgG). These specialised proteins lock onto white blood cells in our body, releasing histamine which causes swelling and inflammation," explained Dr Al Ali.
In addition, according to Dr Ali, "food allergies can contribute to chronic health problems, such as acne, asthma, bed-wetting, diarrhoea, ear infections, eczema, fatigue, hay fever, headache, irritability, chronic runny nose, and even difficulty maintaining concentration".
"Food allergies can also cause intestinal irritation and swelling that interferes with the absorption of vitamins and minerals," he pointed out.
Dr Al Ali said that some people are also allergic to sulphites, which are found in some frozen foods and dried fruits, as well as in medications.
Moreover, some people seem to be genetically predisposed to food allergies. If family members, especially parents, have food allergies, the child would be prone to suffering from the same problem.
"Food allergies are much more common in infants and toddlers than in adults. Anyone can develop a food allergy at any time in his/her life and even to foods that they have enjoyed previously without any problems," added Dr Al Ali.
Diagnosis of food intolerance includes hydrogen breath testing for lactose intolerance, fructose mal-absorption, and professionally supervised elimination diets, said Dr Yousuf.
"The blood test is called an Elisa test and is done to (IgG) mediate immune response to specific foods so that it helps to eliminate certain diets or poorly tolerated foods," he explained.
Dr Yousuf added that Elisa is a standard diagnostic procedure used in a medical set-up for many tests such as detection of viruses and detection of other antibodies. Thus these tests measure antibodies in foods. Such antibodies are called food IgGs.
"Therefore we carry out skin prick test and blood tests on the allergic person in order to give him treatment that suits his case", explained Dr Yousuf.
He added that radioallergosorbent (RAST) test is a blood test used to investigate increased sensitivity to a variety of food groups including eggs, cow's milk, nuts, in addition to dust mites, and animal dander, including hair or fur. It is often used in the investigation of patients with atopic eczema.
According to some practitioners no cures for food allergies exist today, there are no allergy desensitisation or allergy shots available for food allergies.
Minor dietary changes can prevent severe reactions caused by certain food products, and for many this is adequate without the need of professional assistance. Persons unable to isolate foods and those more sensitive or with disabling symptoms should seek expert medical and dietitian help.
"Identification of one's sensitivity to food chemicals will help the dietitian in creating an appropriate diet for the individual, for example, avoiding certain foods with those specific chemicals.
"A dietitian will ensure adequate nutrition is achieved with safe foods and supplements if needed," he added.
The mainstay of treatment for food allergy is avoidance of the foods that have been identified as allergens, said Dr Al Ali.
"If the food is accidentally ingested and a systemic reaction occurs, then epinephrine should be used," he added.
"It is possible that a second dose of epinephrine may be required for severe reactions. The patient should also seek medical care immediately," Dr Yousuf emphasised.
He said that there is a prevalence of more than 8 per cent of physician-diagnosed food allergies in children living in the UAE.
Allergy tests cost more than Dh2,000, he pointed out.