Tanvi Gupte still shudders at the memory of the first time she fed her year-old daughter Preeti, a spoonful of chocolate mousse. Preeti loved the taste but just minutes later, was gripped by nausea, vomiting and breathlessness.
The doctor suspected an allergic reaction and a blood test proved him right. But it was a struggle to identify the trigger that caused the reaction. Finally, when Preeti suffered the same reactions, this time more severe, right after she was fed an omelette, it became clear that she was severely allergic to eggs.
Now five-years-old, Preeti has to be very careful to avoid every food product that may contain even the slightest trace of egg, including chocolates and most bakery products.
Just about anything can cause an allergy and the reactions can vary from a mild cough to extreme nausea, breathlessness and swelling. Sometimes allergies go away, and sometimes you have to avoid some foods for life.
Once considered the mainstay of the affluent West, allergies have become increasingly common in our country too. Research suggests that 29 per cent of the population suffers from some sort of allergy.
The study, conducted by Dr Wiqar Shaikh, consultant allergist, Bombay Hospital and Prince Aly Khan Hospital, and Dr Shifa Shaikh with 3,389 allergy patients over a period of five years from 2003 to 2007 throws up some interesting data. While the highest number of allergic reactions (77.13 per cent) were triggered by the house dust mite, more than 16 per cent of the patients studied had allergic reactions to a variety of foods. Moreover, more than 80 per cent of allergies manifest before the age of 40.
Peanuts, chocolate (cocoa) and fish topped the list of most common food allergens in the study, followed by coconuts, cashew nuts and legumes (dals), even rice. “The pattern of allergic diseases in India and common allergens is completely different from that seen in the west. Rice, which is a rare allergen in the west, caused allergic reactions in more than 8 per cent of patients studied here,” says Dr Wiqar Shaikh.
What are the triggers?
So what leads to your body to react the way it does when you are allergic to a particular food?The body’s own immune system, explains Dr Shaikh, is trained to identify infection-causing viruses or bacteria and fight them. “But in some cases, the immune system is too hyper can’t tell the good from the bad and reacts the same way as it would to a harmful substance.”
An allergic reaction prompted by a food product affects people in different ways. “For example, eating peanuts may trigger off different reactions in different people,” says Dr Vidula Patel, consultant dermatologist, Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital. “Some may develop a body rash and itching while others may complain of nausea or indigestion. A few others may feel breathless or develop angioedema, which is swelling of the lining of the throat, lips and hands.”
Blame it on your genes
The reason why a person’s immune system develops an allergic reaction to any substance is mostly genetic, say doctors. “If one parent suffers from an allergy there’s a 25 per cent chance that their children will suffer it too,” says Dr Wiqar Shaikh. If both parents suffer from an allergy, there is a 50 per cent chance that their children will suffer the same.
Allergy testing can be long-winded and tricky, especially when it comes to food. It involves monitoring what you eat very closely. If you are showing symptoms of an allergic reaction, you have to undergo a blood test and later, a skin prick test to ascertain precisely what you are allergic to. “Your doctor will prick your skin in several places with each of the suspected allergens being tested on it separately and their reaction will be observed,” says Dr Arun Deshpande, a consultant allergist. “The substance that causes a rash, itching or swelling to is likely to be the allergen.”
So what’s the cure?
There is no cure for an allergy to food substances. “All food allergies are caused by specific kinds of protein contained in those foods,” says Dr Nupur Krishnan, nutritionist and director of Biologics Healthcare. “Eliminating any food containing what you are allergic to from your diet is the only way of dealing with it.” One of Dr Krishnan’s patients is allergic to all fruits and develops a body rash coupled with itching whenever she eats anything containing traces of fruit.
“To supplement all the nutrients she misses out on by not eating fruits, I have to alter her diet to include more servings of specific vegetables,” she says.