Enduring Allergies and Tolerating Intolerances

In recognition of Food Allergy Week, Sarah James talks to UON students about their experiences with allergies and intolerances.

When out eating with friends, there’s one phrase that is frequently met with the same look of dread.

“I can’t eat that.”

However, spare a thought for the people to have to endure this everyday of their lives. If you think the number of people with a food allergy is increasing exponentially, you’re not wrong. The number of Australian children admitted to hospital for a severe food allergy has increased five fold in the past decade alone. Unfortunately, science hasn’t made much progress in determining what causes food allergies, with sufferers just having to put up with it. The number of food intolerances has also increased, with 45% of the UK estimated to have some form of intolerance.

In the media and everyday conversation though, the terms ‘allergy’ and ‘intolerance’ are used interchangeably. In 2014 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released figures that stated four million Australians avoid a food type because of an ‘allergy or intolerance’. So what exactly is the difference between an allergy and an intolerance?

Allergy

Allergies are the result of an immune system response. An allergic reaction occurs when the body mistakes a substance (known as an allergen), as harmful. In response, the body produces allergy antibodies in order to identify and react with the foreign substances. Symptoms range from hives, swelling, vomiting to the most severe form known as ‘anaphylaxis’. Anaphylaxis has the potential to be life threatening, and requires immediate medical attention.

Nursing student Erin Healy, who is anaphylactic to nuts, is well aware of the massive inconvenience that having a food allergy can be. It has gotten in the way of major events in her life as she’s been hospitalised many times, and is something she’s forced to think about everyday.

“When it comes to managing it, I am hyper aware. I know exactly what I’m putting into my body, I never eat something I can’t see the ingredients of or are 100 per cent sure of,” Erin said. “I am even wary with soaps, salad dressings, and who I kiss.”

While Erin has had her whole life to adjust to the cost and stress of her allergy, Bachelor of Communications graduate, Esther Holmes, has had a very different experience. Rather than suffering from a congenital allergy (born with), hers is an acquired allergy. It wasn’t until she was 22 that she began to present a reaction to peanuts.

“I was able to eat peanuts and then one night I had satay for dinner and broke out in a painful, itchy rash from head-to-toe,” said Esther.

This late onset allergy presents its own unique challenges.

“Because I wasn’t used to the allergy and hadn’t ever had a food allergy, for the first six months or so I kept forgetting and would eat a Picnic or have peanut butter on toast and end up in hospital on cortisone,” she elaborated.

The good news for those suffering from allergies is that recent research has found a possible treatment for life-threatening allergies. Senior Lecturer in Immunology and Microbiology at UON, Dr Simon Keely, stated in The Conversation that “these findings are a game changer for understanding how allergies develop”. Essentially the study found that in mice, by introducing a group of bacteria known as Clostridia into the gut, it rid the organism of peanut sensitivity. Dr Kelly went on to say that this study was vital for uncovering previously unrecognised pathways through which the immune system interacts with bacteria in the gut. Unfortunately it will be a long time before the potential effectiveness of this for humans is known.

In the meantime, can always look on the bright-side like student Maia Hughes: “with my oyster allergy at least I’m a cheap date!”

ALLERGIES by Laura Unicomb (1).jpg
Laura Unicomb

Intolerance

While many of the symptoms of allergies and intolerances are similar, there are key points of difference that distinguish the two conditions. A food intolerance does not trigger an immune system response or anaphylaxis. Rather, in general terms it is the body having a chemical reaction to consuming a particular food or drink. This difficulty digesting could be due to a number of factors such as an enzyme deficiency (meaning the body cannot breakdown the structure of the food), or the presence of histamines, salicylates and additives. Two of the more common intolerances include lactose and gluten. For those suffering from intolerances, they may be able to eat small amounts of the substance before experiencing difficulties, and may also be able to prevent a reaction such as by taking enzyme pills to aid digestion.

Erin Healy is unlucky enough to suffer from an allergy, while also being intolerant to avocado, watermelon, carrots, mango and sesame seeds. She describes having an intolerance as “very, very annoying, but less detrimental to my life” than an allergy. “My allergy stops me from going to parties, whereas my intolerances mean I have to disregard half the menu at a café,” she said.

If you suspect you might have an allergy or intolerance, please seek advice from your own GP or from one of the UON medical centres. More information on this service can be found at https://www.newcastle.edu.au/current-students/campus-environment/medical-services/medical-centres

Feature Image by Visual Communication Design student Laura Unicomb.