All over the world, particularly in developed nations, children are more likely to develop allergies than ever before.
Although most reactions are mild, the fact they can be fatal means patients and families have to live in fear and be constantly vigilant when purchasing food products in supermarkets and restaurants — but why are food allergies more common now?
What is an allergic reaction?
An allergy is a reaction our body has to substances called allergens when they come into contact with our skin, nose, eyes, respiratory tract or gastrointestinal tract.
If you’ve ever experienced sudden and unexplained bouts of sneezing, a blocked nose, a red and itchy rash or wheezing and coughing, it’s likely you’ve had some sort of allergic reaction.
There’s a good chance you have, because allergies are very common. In fact, more 50 million Americans have experienced various types of allergies. Allergies are particularly common in children and, although some go away as we get older, many stay with the person for life. Adults will also sometimes develop an allergy to things they weren’t previously allergic to.
Most allergic reactions are mild and no more than a nuisance, while they can be controlled with medication, but severe reactions can be life threatening.
What are the most common causes of allergic reactions?
In order to protect us from foreign substances and viruses our immune system produces antibodies. However, when someone suffers from an allergy their immune system makes antibodies to combat something that won’t actually harm us. Our bodies mistake the allergen for something dangerous, even though it isn’t.
People can be allergic to almost anything, but there are some substances more likely to trigger an allergic reaction. These include:
- Grass and tree pollen (you probably know this as hay fever)
- Certain foods, particularly nuts, fruit, shellfish, eggs and dairy products
- Certain medicines, including ibuprofen, aspirin and some antibiotics
- Household chemicals, for example found in some detergents and hair dyes
- Dust mites
- Animal ‘dander’ — tiny flecks of skin
Unlike symptoms of food sensitivity that can take hours to present themselves after consuming the trigger food, allergic reactions usually happen within just a few minutes of exposure to an allergen.
The most common symptoms include:
- A blocked or runny nose
- Red, itchy and watery eyes
- Wheezing and coughing
- A red, itchy rash
- Worsened symptoms of asthma or eczema
The most dangerous allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock, and requires immediate medical attention.
Why food allergies are more common
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children suffering from food allergies increased by approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. This increase has also been seen in other developed nations, with 7% of children in the UK and 9% in Australia now affected by food allergies.
There are a few theories on offer to explain why allergies are on the increase.
Are we just more aware of allergies?
Are we just seeing increased rates of allergy diagnosis because we’re more aware of them?
Allergy experts dismiss this as the cause, but there are issues in self-reporting. As many as 3-4 times as many people think they have a food allergy as actually do. One of the main reasons for this is confusion between food allergies and food intolerance.
Nevertheless, data from multiple studies showed a significant increase in worldwide allergies, up from 3% of the population in 1960 to approximately 7% in 2018.
The ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’
This isn’t about us keeping our homes too clean — it’s that, from a young age, our gut isn’t encountering enough different types of microorganisms.
For example, modern homes are made with biocide-treated timber and plasterboard, and the ‘microbiota’ — the organisms within a particular habitat — are now a long way from the environments we evolved from. Because we’re encountering fewer of these microbes at an early age, our immune systems are less prepared and capable of responding to foreign substances. This is supported by studies that show the more antibiotics someone has as a child, the more likely they are to develop a food allergy.
Dual-allergen exposure theory
Back in the 1990s when food allergies started appearing, the guidance given to parents was to not give these foods to your children until they’re three years old. Not only was this advice not based on evidence, it was actually the opposite of what parents should have been doing.
Just because an infant doesn’t eat a peanut it doesn’t mean they won’t be exposed to them. If a baby’s body’s first experience of peanuts is breathing it in through dust or via broken skin caused by a rash or eczema, they could be sensitised to it. This means the first time they eat a peanut their immune system will perceive it as a threat and attack.
Rather than shielding children from these foods, parents should be introducing allergenic foods as early as possible. This is particularly true for children with eczema as it’s much easier for the substances to get into the body through broken skin.
Vitamin D deficiency
Studies have also shown a link between the availability of sunlight and food allergies.
Research conducted in Australia found that children with a vitamin D deficiency were three times more likely to develop an egg allergy and 11-times more likely to develop a peanut allergy.
Vitamin D helps to regulate the immune system, which ensures the body is less sensitive to allergies. However, modern urban living with so much time spent indoors, coupled with parents following medical advice and always covering their children’s skin with sunscreen, is leading to increased rates of vitamin D deficiency. In the US, this condition is thought to be twice as prevalent as it was just over ten years ago.
Getting your allergies tested
Do you frequently experience uncomfortable symptoms after eating but aren’t sure which part of your diet is causing it? Our Food Sensitivity Test is designed to uncover how your body reacts to a number of food and drink items so you know what you need to avoid.
The test will measure your IgE antibody levels against 38 key food and drink items, including grains, wheat, nuts, milks, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, delivering results within just five working days (upon receipt at our testing lab).
With easy-to-follow instructions, free P&P and a free return envelope to our lab, it couldn’t be easier to discover if you suffer from a food allergy.
Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science
I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.