Food Allergies: what you need to know

It’s estimated that around 2 million people suffer from food allergies in the UK, which is about 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children. Food allergies occur when the immune system reacts after eating a certain food that it believes to be harmful. We reveal what you need to know when it comes to managing a food allergy.

The most common food allergies include eggs, milk, fish, soy, shellfish, sesame and nuts. However, peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish allergies are rarely resolved. Both adults and children can be affected by food allergies, however most children will grow out of their food allergies when their gut and immune system matures or there is a change in the immune system response.

different types of food allergies

Essentially, food allergies are divided into two types. The first, and most common, is called “IgE mediated” food allergy. This is when the immune system produces an antibody called IgE and symptoms will occur rapidly within minutes or seconds after eating. The second type is “non- IgE mediated” food allergy, which is when the allergic reaction is not caused by IgE but by other cells in the immune system. This type of food allergy takes longer to show symptoms.

What are the symptoms of a food allergy?

The symptoms of an allergic reaction to food are wide ranging, but can include histamine responses such as itching and a rash, swelling around the face, eyes, lips or tongue and vomiting and diarrhoea. In rare cases the allergy may trigger an anaphylactic response which would need immediate emergency treatment as this reaction can be fatal. An auto-injector that contains adrenalin can be carried by those who experience severe reactions.

What is food intolerance and how is it different to a food allergy?

Food intolerances are more common than food allergies, however they are still uncommon and symptoms, such as headaches and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), are much slower to appear. Common foods that may cause food intolerance are wheat, gluten and dairy . However, it is worth noting that coeliac disease is not an allergy but an autoimmune disease where people cannot tolerate gluten - a protein found in some grains, particularly wheat, barley and rye. This is usually diagnosed by a biopsy and the patient will need to remove gluten from their diet.


Many people who think they have food intolerances actually don’t and it is more often that the gut flora is compromised in some way. Good levels of lactobacillus and bifidus bacterias help to break down our food, but lower levels can be found in people with poor diets, high levels of stress or long use of antibiotics.

Lactose intolerance can be confused as food intolerance when it is actually an absence of the enzyme lactase and should be treated as a separate condition. Lactose intolerance means that you have problems breaking down milk sugar found in dairy food, which can cause symptoms of gas, bloating and loose stools. It is easily diagnosed with a breath test and symptoms can be reduced by removing lactose from the diet.

How should you deal with food allergies and intolerances?

If you have a life-threatening allergic reaction, then you should call 999 immediately and state ‘anaphylaxis’. However, if you have a less serious allergic reaction to a particular food, then you should go and ask your GP for advice.

IgE allergy tests are useful in assessing the trigger, or if your symptoms are severe enough, an adrenalin pen can be prescribed. It is also important to keep a food diary to monitor any food allergies or intolerances you suspect you may have. If the trigger is not obvious and some days you are able to eat a food that you have previously had an issue with, then the problem might be something else. Unless the reaction happens quickly it can be tricky to identify the food which has caused your reaction. Eating plainly and simply can help you to identify potential triggers.

You can find out more about testing for food allergies here.

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