Tuesday, May 5, 2015

May is Allergy Awareness Month

Pat MacIntosh, Alberta Health Services

It is estimated that as many as 2.5 million Canadians or about seven per cent of the population may have food allergies. An allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to a food protein or additive. When a food causes an immune response, the food is called an allergen. The most common food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, soy, seafood (fish and shellfish), wheat, eggs, milk, mustard and sulphites. Some allergies are lifelong. Others, such as milk or egg allergies, are often outgrown by the time a child is school age.

While the symptoms of food intolerance can be mistaken for those of a food allergy, they are not the same. Food intolerance does not involve the body’s immune system. Common causes of food intolerance are inadequate digestion or absorption which can cause side effects similar to some food allergies.

Symptoms of allergic reactions can be different for everyone. They may take minutes or hours to occur. The most common symptoms of allergies are:
  • Flushed or pale face, hives, rash, itchy skin 
  • Swelling of the eyes, face, lips, throat, or tongue 
  • Coughing, sneezing, wheezing, or shortness of breath 
  • Stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting 
  • Feeling anxious, weak, dizzy, or faint 

Food allergies are not a choice. Severe allergic reactions to food can be life threatening and can occur quickly, sometimes without warning. Severe reactions can be treated with an EpiPen®.

The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid contact with the foods or ingredients that cause them. There are several things you can do to protect yourself.

Read labels to help you avoid the allergen

Most packaged foods are required to have a label that includes a list of ingredients. Read labels every time you shop as the ingredients used in products may change. Health Canada has specific information on avoiding the common allergens, including the other names they may be listed by; search “Food Allergies” and “the Priority Allergens” for more information. Avoid food products that do not list their ingredients and those that contain an ingredient that you don't recognize. Avoid foods that state “may contain” or “not suitable for persons with an allergy to __.” These statements mean the foods may have come into contact with the allergen during processing

Avoid cross-contamination

Cross contamination happens when one food comes in contact with another food. As a result, one food has a small amount of the other food mixed in. Avoid bulk bins; foods or the scoops may have come from other bins.

Inform others of your allergy

Don’t take chances: When eating at a friend's home, or in a restaurant, make sure they know about your food allergy. Ask specific questions about the food and how it is prepared. If you aren’t sure, don’t eat it.

Carry an EpiPen®

If you have severe allergic reactions, carry your EpiPen® with you all the time. Know how to use it! A Medic Alert identifier is also a good idea. In case of an accident, others will know about your allergies.

Teach others about allergies
Help classmates, co-workers and friends learn about allergies and their symptoms. The more they know, the better they are able to help you prevent and treat allergic reactions.

Allergy awareness is important for everyone so that people with allergies can stay safe.

Pat MacIntosh is a Registered Dietitian with Alberta Health Services, Nutrition Services. She can be reached at Community Health Services in Medicine Hat at 403-502-1411 or by e-mail

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