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Future proof: how are allergies going to affect the next generation?

7 minutes

Treatments for food allergies are on their way, but what can you do to reduce your child’s chance of developing allergies? Holly Cave investigates.

  • 2 million people in the UK are living with a diagnosed food allergy
  • Experimental new treatments mean children can now overcome even serious allergies
  • Simple steps can reduce your child’s chance of developing allergies

How are allergies going to affect the next generation?

A whopping 44% of British adults now suffer from at least one allergy and the number of sufferers is on the rise, growing by around two million between 2008 and 2009 alone. Almost half (48%) of sufferers have more than one allergy [1].

When it comes to food allergies, 5-8% of children and 1-2% of adults are affected by food allergies in the UK [2] with reactions to foods such as nuts, milk, eggs and shellfish. In addition, 1 in 100 people have coeliac disease [3] which is caused by an adverse reaction to the gluten in wheat, rye and barley.

But, there’s good news! A six-year old with a peanut allergy can now eat her birthday cake for the first time, after undergoing a successful new treatment for her allergy. Emily was part of a major study in which 500 children were given increasing amounts of peanut protein over a year[4]

Research such as this gives hope to all those with serious allergies, but we’re continuing to bring up new generations of children with more allergies than ever. Do the experts know why?

Why are food allergies on the increase?

Food allergies happen when our bodies mount an unnecessary immune response to a food, misinterpreting it as a threat. The body manufactures antibodies to ‘fight off’ the food. The next time we eat – or, in some cases, even just touch – that food, it triggers an immune response. The chemicals released by the body cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, itching and wheezing.

So, why are increasing numbers of children developing food allergies?

“We’re not 100% sure why it's happened,” explains paediatrician and expert in childhood allergies, Dr Ramnik Mathur, “but there are certain factors to blame like the hygiene hypothesis. We have become very hygienic: we try to clean everything and keep everything bacteria free. Our body has forgotten how to fight back against various antigens and bacteria. The body now recognises normal things which are absolutely fine as foreign bodies, and they try to mount a reaction to it.”

He also argues that one cause might lie in pregnant women having been advised to change their eating habits: “There was guidance which advised expectant mothers to not to eat nuts and various allergenic foods. That was not good advice because that has led to an increase in allergies, so now the most recent advice is to eat everything, assuming you are already not known to be allergic to that particular substance.”

It seems that there are other factors involved, too. A piece of research from the United States found that a lack of exposure to sunlight – resulting in vitamin D deficiency – makes young children three times more likely to develop an allergy to eggs and 11 times more likely to have a peanut allergy.

Dealing with your child’s allergies

The experts at Allergy UK suggest there are three key things to be on top of when it comes to managing a potential food allergy in your child:

1. Identify and avoid the cause

If you think your baby or child might have a food allergy, then try keeping a food and symptom diary to help you identify foods that might be causing a reaction. A useful template and lots of other handy advice can be found on the Allergy UK website.

2. Recognise the symptoms of an allergic reaction

Mild to moderate symptoms can affect the skin (such as hives, rash, swelling) the respiratory system (such as runny nose, watery eyes, itchy throat) and the gut (nausea and vomiting tummy cramps and diarrhoea).

Keep an eye out for more serious symptoms that could be a sign of anaphylaxis and would need urgent medical attention. These include wheezing and chest tightness, swelling of the tongue and throat that affects your child’s breathing, as well as dizziness, confusion, and loss of consciousness.

It’s worth bearing mind that intolerance to food can easily be mistaken for an allergy. “Many patients think they have food allergies when in fact they may be intolerant,” says Rubaiyat Haque, consultant allergist at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital. Intolerances to foods can cause problems such as bloating, stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea and fatigue, but they don’t involve the immune system.

3. Know what to do if it happens again

On the bright side, there are some food allergies that your child is likely to grow out of. There are two types of milk allergy, for example. “Non-IgE mediated milk allergy is something you grow out of by the time you are one to two years of age,” says Dr Mathur. “With egg allergy, you grow out of it between seven to eight years of age. But the chances of growing out of peanut allergy is [only] one in ten.”

Fighting back against food allergies

As we’ve seen with six-year-old Emily, even serious allergies, such as peanut allergy, could soon be treatable, thanks to immunotherapy.

“It's not available via NHS at the moment,” says Dr Mathur, “but immunotherapy is where we give you the substance you’re allergic to in small quantities and we expect you to develop a tolerance to it.”

Genetic studies are also revealing the relationship between allergies and our DNA. Large studies are beginning to show that as few as 20 to 40 of our 20,000 genes are involved in the development of allergies. New findings could herald further, gene-based treatments for the most serious allergies.

Foods are changing and adapting to suit people with allergies, too. So, keep your eyes peeled for new alternatives to your usual products in the supermarket aisles.

We have so much still to understand about food allergies. This means that there are lots of myths outdated information out there about what causes them and how they can be treated. If you think your child might have an allergy, or you’re worried about them developing one, the best thing to do is to contact your GP.

Citations

[1] Richmond, Alexandra, 2010. Allergies and Allergy Remedies - UK - February 2010, Mintel Reports, http://reports.mintel.com/display/479826/?__cc=1

[2] Food Standards Agency, 2015. Food allergen labelling and information requirements under the EU Food Information for Consumers, GOV.UK Food Standards Agency, https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/media/document/food-allergen-labelling-technical-guidance.pdf

[3] Steve Wearne, 2017. FOOD ALLERGY AND INTOLERANCE PROGRAMME, GOV.UK Food Standards Agency, https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/media/document/fsa170306.pdf

[4] Stacie M. Jones, MD, 2018. Efficacy and Safety of AR101 in Peanut Allergy: Results from a Phase 3, Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial, https://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(17)32841-5/fulltext