Celebrating Food Allergy Awareness Week at Aimmune
Running this year from May 8 to 14, Food Allergy Awareness Week is an initiative founded by Aimmune sponsorship recipient FARE. The aim is to raise awareness and understanding of food allergies through a range of campaigns, activities and other advocacy initiatives that are both educational and fun.
Everyone in the food allergy community is invited by FARE “to learn, love and connect” during Food Allergy Awareness Week. We’re all asked to take action to help change the lives of people living with food allergies.
For more information about food allergies, and to get involved with Food Allergy Awareness Week, visit FARE’s website here.
As part of Aimmune’s contribution to the fight against food, gastrointestinal (GI) and metabolic-related diseases, we’ll be celebrating Food Allergy Awareness Week with a series of stories from people across the food allergy community. These stories will explore the impact of food allergies from different perspectives, how they’ve impacted our interviewees’ lives, and what their hopes are for the future.
Check back tomorrow for the first in that series!
But first, to kick things off, we thought we’d go back to basics, with a brief overview of food allergies, their impact and management, as well as a few common misconceptions.
What is a food allergy?
Our immune systems are designed to fight infection. An allergic reaction occurs when the body falsely identifies a particular foodstuff as a potentially harmful “invader”, reacting against it with a process that begins with production of allergic antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE).
Once the body is “primed” with IgE against a particular food, the next may result in an immediate harmful reaction. Even the smallest exposure to milk, eggs, peanuts, shellfish or other substances can cause an abnormal immune response in people sensitized with IgE to one or more of these foods. For many, this means unpleasant, but ultimately treatable symptoms such as swelling, a rash, maybe breathing difficulties and vomiting or stomach pain. For some, however, it can lead to life-threatening reactions such as a drop in blood pressure or anaphylactic shock.
Food allergies are common. Some estimates suggest that up to 5% of all adults and 8% of children worldwide are affected. Numbers continue to rise year on year, too, possibly because of dietary, lifestyle, and environmental changes.
What’s the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?
A food intolerance, or food sensitivity, means either the body can’t properly digest a certain ingredient, or that it irritates the digestive system without involving an allergic reaction by the immune system. A well-known and common example of this is “lactose intolerance”, which occurs when the body does not produce enough of the enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar in milk. When undigested lactose continues through the GI tract, it may cause symptoms such as nausea, gas, cramps, diarrhea, irritability or headaches. There are many other food intolerances that may cause these types of symptoms, such as gluten intolerance or some cases of irritable bowel syndrome.
Fortunately, while making people feel ill, an intolerance is unlikely to produce the same potentially dangerous effects as a true food allergy.
What’s the wider impact of food allergies?
On top of the potentially serious physical symptoms of food allergies, they may also lead to feelings of social isolation, fear and anxiety in those affected. There is a societal economic impact too, with the annual direct and indirect costs of childhood food allergies in the U.S. alone estimated at nearly $25 billion.
How are food allergies treated?
Avoidance of specific food allergens, as well as the use of epinephrine to treat severe reactions associated with accidental exposures, have historically represented the standard of care. However, avoidance can be difficult to achieve, and so is not a perfect solution for many. This means medical treatments, such as oral immunotherapy, may be needed to reduce the risk of allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, associated with food allergies.
2 Gupta, R, Holdford, D, Bilaver, L, Dyer, A, Holl JL, Meltzer D. The economic impact of childhood food allergy in the United States. JAMA Pediatrics 2013: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/1738764