It is often said that Africans do not have allergies, but it is not unusual to find people complaining about reacting to one food or the other. In describing these reactions, the terms allergies and intolerance are often confused and used interchangeably. But are they really the same? Let’s find out.
A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system mistakes a food ingredient (usually a protein) as harmful and mounts a defense system to fight it. This defense system is known as antibodies. In order to protect the body from the ‘invader’, also known as an allergen, the immune system releases substances such as histamine and other chemicals into the blood when that food is eaten. Food allergies are usually confirmed by running a blood test.
Even though several foods (about 160) cause allergies in people, there are eight (8) foods that have been identified as the most common triggers of food allergies. These are:
- tree nuts (e.g. cashews, walnuts)
- shellfish (e.g. crab, shrimps, lobster)
- and wheat
Depending on one’s geographical location certain foods have also been identified as triggering allergic reactions in people. Examples are pineapples among some Ghanaians and Okra for Nigerians.
Food intolerances, unlike allergies, are responses by the digestive system to food that it is unable to properly digest because it lacks the necessary enzymes. It does not involve the immune system and is not life-threatening. The most common example is lactose intolerance, where the body cannot break down lactose (milk sugar) that is found in milk and other dairy products. Other examples of food intolerances are gluten, food colourings and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
The symptoms of food intolerance can present in the form of gas and bloating, diarrhea, cramping, constipation and nausea. It occurs gradually over time i.e. about 45 minutes to 24 hours or more for symptoms to manifest.
Food allergy reactions however can occur within minutes up to hours after eating the trigger food and its symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening. Depending on where the chemicals are released, the following symptoms may occur:
Brain- Headaches, fever, dizziness, loss of consciousness
Gut- nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping
Skin- Itching, rashes, hives, eczema
Eyes- itching, redness, watering
Lungs- wheezing, shortness of breath
Heart- low blood pressure, palpitations
Mouth-coughing, swelling, difficulty swallowing
Anaphylaxis is the most severe of allergic reactions in that it involves many parts of the body at the same time. It can occur within minutes of exposure and is potentially fatal if medication is not given promptly.
Food allergies and intolerances can be prevented by avoiding the offending foods. It is therefore important to pay attention to food labels and ask about food ingredients when eating out of home. Food intolerances if not extreme, can be managed by eating small amounts of the offending food or taking in supplements that contain the required enzymes to aid in digestion e.g. lactase.
For food allergies, antihistamines can be administered by a doctor if a trigger food is mistakenly consumed. An anaphylactic reaction is treated by giving an epinephrine injection and followed up with care and observation in the emergency room. If you happen to identify any of the symptoms in anyone and you are not sure what to do just call an ambulance immediately.