Jennifer ate shellfish for decades. One day, she was rushed to emergency after a prawn dumpling lunch

Tuesday, October 17, 2023 - 9:00 AM

Adult on-set food allergy

For 39 years, Jennifer Sims enjoyed prawn toast, battered calamari and shrimp fried rice.

But Sims’ fondness for seafood almost killed her this year: a prawn dumpling at a work lunch triggered an anaphylactic reaction, and an ambulance raced her to hospital.

“In the restaurant, I started getting tingly lips,” she recalled. “I started feeling really sick.”

By the time Sims arrived at the emergency department on May 11, her face was covered in hives and she was wheezing.

Sims is among a growing number of Australian adults who have food allergy, with doctors reporting a rise in the number of patients they are seeing who have become allergic later in life.
While a lot of the focus over the past few decades has been on preventing and managing food allergies in children, around one in 50 adults have a food allergy. An estimated 15 per cent of this cohort developed their allergy in adulthood.

Melbourne premiership defender Steven May is also among this group: the footballer spent a night in hospital after suffering an allergic reaction to food during a night out with his partner.

It is believed it was the first time the 31-year-old had experienced an allergic reaction.

A new registry to be piloted next year by the National Allergy Centre of Excellence hopes to shed light on the prevalence of adult-onset food allergies in Australia. It will require participating hospitals to record additional details of patients who present to the emergency department with acute allergies, including their potential allergy and whether it’s the first time they’ve had a reaction.

The centre’s director, Professor Kirsten Perrett, suspects cases of adult-onset food allergies are being fuelled by exposure to a broader range of allergens and a breakdown of our immune system’s tolerance to them.

She said this breakdown may be caused by changing environmental factors, such as reduced exposure to microbes thanks to our clean lifestyles, and low vitamin D levels due to decreased sun exposure.

“More research is needed,” Perrett said. “It’s really fascinating.”

A food allergy is a potentially deadly immune system reaction to food that is harmless to most people. Symptoms can include hives, itching in the mouth, abdominal pain, nausea and in extreme cases, anaphylaxis, which involves a tightening of the airways.
Shellfish is the most common food allergy among adults, with this allergen also triggering the most severe anaphylaxis.

“Every year, around Christmas, people get severe anaphylactic reactions to shrimp and prawns without previously realising they were allergic,” said Professor Andreas Lopata, a James Cook University food allergy expert and chief investigator with the Centre for Food Allergy Research.

Read more at The Sydney Morning Herald

Hear Professor Kirsten Perrett on 2GB Healthy Living

Professor Kirsten Perrett

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