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Vol 21, No. 12, December 2017   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
Living with food allergy
Allergies exist in many different forms and they can be induced by the environment, drugs, food, and others. These allergens can trigger an allergic reaction, requiring clinical care by a physician or a health care professional. Let's hear from Catherine Ong, who talks about her own encounter with a food allergy.

Allergies? What are they?

Whenever I hear the word “allergy,” I understand it to be an averse, physical reaction to something. Allergies usually affect the body’s hypersensitivity in response to environmental or food proteins the immune system may deem harmful. Our immune system’s primary aim is to protect ourselves from foreign antibodies. [1] The first exposure to certain allergens may not even induce a reaction. However, the second time, the body may confuse it as being attacked by an external substance, which will still result to an allergic reaction.

Allergens, the materials or products that cause allergies, can be found in a multitude of sources. They can be from animals, like fur from your pets or bee stings; over-the-counter drugs like penicillin or aspirin; plants and their pollen (causing hay fever) and even metals like nickel and chromium. [2]

Another cause of an allergic reaction is food. Otherwise known as one of the basic needs for human survival.

There is a fine line between food allergy and food intolerance, as symptoms overlap. Usually, food intolerance is triggered by an absence of enzyme to digest food properly. Food allergy, however, is a reaction from the immune system and the symptoms tend to be quicker to manifest.

Food allergy is more common in babies and children. However, they are known to appear at any age. Sometimes, you can consume a particular type of food all your life and all of a sudden, you become allergic to it.

I found that out the hard way.

Shrimps away!

I was enjoying a family dinner overseas when my aunt served me a few pieces of buttered prawns on my plate. I dove into them with gusto, as I always loved any dish with shrimp in it, and these prawns were the jumbo kind.

The next thing I knew, all the people in the round table were staring at me in aghast and I quickly wiped my mouth with a napkin.

Why did my mouth feel different? It felt swollen and raw and sensitive.

Then my mother quickly checked my arms, which had sprouted tiny, red bumps as though millions of insects had crawled up in those excruciating minutes and bitten me.

Suddenly, I was being rushed into the hospital.

I was fourteen at the time, still considered a child. I had no idea an allergy could form when I had no problem eating shrimp before. When I was younger, I would even eat a spoonful of shrimp paste (a staple ingredient in every other viand in the Filipino cuisine) because it tasted so good. Then, why, out of the blue, I was being told by the doctor that even the tiniest morsel of shrimp passing my lips would require me to take an antihistamine right away? That I might suffer worse symptoms than rashes if I ever had shrimps again?

I was then referred to an allergist, who conducted a few more tests, and it turned out that I was also now allergic to other kinds of shellfish, including crab and lobster. I noticed that they were all the same color.

I wondered if I was allergic to the colour, orange altogether.

My father looked at me in sympathy, at the thought of the unimaginable torture of never eating orange seafood forever, and murmured, “What a sad life.”


Symptoms of food allergy

Food allergens can be found in most foods or added as ingredients in most dishes, so caution is always key. The most common types are:

  • Egg
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Peanut
  • Shellfish (shrimp, crayfish, lobster, crab, clam, scallop, mussels)
  • Soy
  • Tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc.)
  • Wheat
An allergic reaction can range from mild to severe. However, if you are allergic to a certain food, the following symptoms may be experienced:
  • Itchy mouth
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and pain
  • Hives (welts), itchy rashes
  • Persistent eczema
  • Tightening of the throat, trouble breathing, wheezing, coughing
  • Sneezing, hoarseness, nasal congestion
  • Drop in blood pressure, fainting, weak pulse
  • A severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis (a life- threatening state where, if not treated on time, could lead to death). [3]

Food allergy management

There is always a slim chance that you may ingest an allergenic food by mistake. Should this happen, it is useful to have your prescribed medicine within reach.

Other people keep a food diary so they can track what they eat. This can enable doctors find out what triggers or alleviates your allergies. If you find this method tedious, you can wear a medical alert bracelet especially if you are susceptible to serious allergic reactions.

If you are at risk of anaphylaxis, you should have epinephrine (adrenalin) shot handy at all times. Epinephrine auto-injectors are available in the market that your doctor can prescribe. They also vary in price ranges and doses, depending on the severity of the allergies. [4]

Technology-wise, there are free food allergy apps that may be worth checking out. These are available in both iPhone and Android-friendly formats.

  • Zyrtec, for pollen and allergy symptoms
  • AllergyEats, for restaurants that accommodate guests with food allergies
  • Yummly Recipes, for meal-prepping with substitute ingredients
  • Allergy Basket, for allergy-safe products that you can save on your shopping list. [5]

The bigger picture

How does one become allergic to one substance or protein, anyway? Most studies conducted on allergies have always been based on children. Research made by Northwestern University on the incidences of food allergy on kids illuminates the question of the trigger for such a reaction being possibly caused by the environment, an infection or virus, or even relocation.

“The most common reason that people become allergic to a food outside of the first few years of life is because the food that they become allergic to is related to something else they’re allergic to,” speculates Dr. Robert Wood, based in John Hopkins University and head of their pediatric allergy and immunology department. “The majority of people who have shellfish allergy are dust-mite allergic. Both cockroach and dust mite share some proteins with shellfish.”

But it is still difficult to pinpoint the original cause. “If you take a 40-year-old who reacted to shellfish, and you test them to shellfish and dust mite, they will be positive, because the proteins are similar enough. But you can’t prove which came first, whether it was the dust-mite allergy that truly led to the shellfish allergy,” says Dr. Wood. [6]

There are ways to still live a full life with a food allergy. Into adulthood, the best tactic I can prevent an allergic reaction is to eliminate crustaceans from my diet altogether. This can rain on anyone’s parade, especially when I am travelling, and the tour includes a bountiful seafood buffet.

Do I miss having shrimp, prawns, crabs or lobsters as food, after all these years? Do I envy people who are able to eat them and post about them on their Instagram accounts, with hashtags of #foodinsta, #shrimpgalore, #seafoodie, etc?

To be honest, I am not sure. I have a vague memory of what they taste like. I am actually the ideal dinner buddy, since I shall willingly give you my share of tiger prawns and Alaskan king crabs when they are on the menu. I am so used to being extra vigilant when eating out, asking servers and waiters in restaurants whether the food contains any sort of shrimp in them. Saving my own life is instinctive after all. Other than that, I still get to eat most of my favorite foods and manage a healthy appetite sans the shellfish. Que sera sera.


  1. Allergies and Their Types: https://www.aafa.org/page/types-of-allergies.aspx
  2. Allergens: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allergen
  3. Food Allergy: https://acaai.org/allergies/types/food-allergy
  4. Preventing Allergic Reactions and Controlling Allergies: https://www.aafa.org/page/prevent-allergies.aspx
  5. “The Best Allergies Apps of The Year” by Rena Goldman: https://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/top-iphone-android-apps
  6. “When Food Allergy Strikes an Adult” by Patrick Bennett:
  7. https://www.allergicliving.com/2016/01/19/when-allergy-strikes-an-adult/

About the Author

Catherine Domingo Ong
Catherine is a writer whose guilty pleasure is lounging in a peaceful location with a good book (or several) with a latte at hand.


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