Understanding the Connection Between Secondary Food Allergies and Eczema

Allergic reactions come in many forms and have countless causes. For example, you might experience a swollen tongue after eating shellfish or notice increased eczema flare-ups during pollen season. Doctors are always discovering new findings on how the body reacts to substances and the connections between certain foods and chemicals. As a result, a seemingly harmless item could lead to unwanted symptoms just because it is similar to one of your allergies.

Dr. Praveen Buddiga, the founder of BUDDIGA Family Allergy | Skin | Immunology works with patients across Central California to address their allergy symptoms. He knows to look at common causes of allergic reactions – and also secondary reactions. Learn more about these secondary allergies and how your primary allergic reactions (like eczema) can potentially worsen them.

What Are Secondary Allergies?

An allergy is a negative reaction by your body to a foreign substance. When your immune system perceives a threat (like a virus) it works to fight the attacker so your body stays safe. Unfortunately, these perceived threats aren’t always dangerous. Some people experience allergic reactions to common items like bananas, nuts, shellfish, pet dander, and pollen. While one person might be fine snuggling with a kitten or enjoying a peanut butter sandwich, their friend could experience breathing problems, swelling, itching, and other symptoms just by being around their allergens.

However, not all allergens are direct. Sometimes the chemicals found in substances you aren’t allergic to (like apples and pears) are similar to those found in your allergens (tree pollen). This can trigger allergic reactions even if you aren’t around the items you are normally allergic to. This is called a secondary food allergy.

Secondary food allergies have multiple names. They are also called cross-reactivity because the reaction to one substance causes the body to react to others with similar chemical make-ups. Secondary allergies are also known as oral allergy syndrome (OAS).

How Common Are Secondary Allergies?

Not much is known about secondary allergies and OAS – especially in adult development. The first thing to know is that anyone can develop an allergy during their lifetime. While many parents discover allergic reactions in their kids when they try foods for the first time, adults can also form allergies to substances that have been around for years. Your eyes might suddenly start to water any time you are around a dog or your tongue could become itchy and swollen when you eat pineapple.

“I have seen patients of all ages who have developed eczema secondary to food allergens at various stages in their lives even though they don’t have an Asthma or Allergies. This may be due to developing a hypersensitivity at a certain age in their lives to milk protein, corn or other edible proteins,” says Dr. Praveen Buddiga.

Because allergies can form at any time, and because many go unreported, it’s hard to track how common primary allergies are. This means tracking secondary allergies is even more difficult, as doctors need to be aware of the primary allergies while having the ability to make a connection to the secondary ones. Oftentimes, doctors will just label two allergens as primary irritants, rather than finding the cause and effect from one to another.

Fortunately, as more medical professionals learn about OAS, secondary allergy diagnoses are becoming more common. By some estimates, up to 60 percent of all food allergies are cross-reactions from primary allergies. That large of a percentage is nothing to sneeze at.

What Are Some Examples of Secondary Allergies

One of the best ways to understand secondary allergies is to look at examples of them. This way you can get a feel for the cross-reactions from one irritant to another. Here are a few common allergies and foods that could create secondary reactions.

  • Tree pollen: apple, peach, plum, cherry, pear, almonds, other nuts
  • Latex: banana, avocado, potato, pineapple, chestnut
  • Ragweed: melon, banana, tomato, cucumber
  • Grass: oat, corn, wheat, rye
  • Animal hair: cow’s milk and meat

There are also some less common connections from one allergen to another. For example, people who are allergic to dust mites in the home might also have shellfish sensitivities. This is because the makeup of dust mites and cockroaches are similar to crustaceans, so eating shellfish can lead to an allergic reaction in people who are already sensitive to dust.

As you can see from these examples, your body encounters a substance that looks similar to a chemical they identify as dangerous. Even if the substances aren’t exactly the same, your immune system goes on alert to protect you just in case. This is how your tree pollen allergy can lead to sensitivity to cherries.

Secondary Food Allergies Can Cause Eczema

When most people think about food allergies, they picture facial swelling and difficulty breathing. While these are common symptoms, your body may react in different ways to consuming various foods – including skin reactions. Patients may develop hives (urticaria) which are sensitive skin welts or eczema (atopic dermatitis).

Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition caused by the body’s immune system. It looks like a rash or dry, itchy skin. The damaged skin can be scaly or flaky. It can also be painful and sensitive to the touch. You may also notice small bumps that form pus and then crust over in eczema hot spots. Eczema flare-ups can occur in patients who experience both primary and secondary allergies.

Eczema is more common in patients that have a family history of this skin condition. You are more likely to experience uncomfortable, inflamed skin if your relatives also had this reaction. Eczema is not contagious and your symptoms may flare up at times and fade over time.

Doctors Are Learning the Connection with Eczema and Allergies

Researchers are still working to discover how food allergies cause eczema and how eczema might actually lead to food allergies. It is commonly believed that eczema can be an immune response to an allergen. However, in some cases, it may create opportunities for additional reactions to other substances.

Eczema damages the skin. The structures of the cells start to collapse because of inflammation and itching. The cells break down and flake off, leaving the skin red and sensitive. During this time, the skin is unable to do its job – protect the body from outside threats. As a result, more irritants can come in contact with the body and create allergic reactions.

Some researchers have found that there is a connection between kitchen workers with eczema and food allergies. The risk of developing food allergies is higher for people with eczema who work in kitchens compared to those with eczema in other professions. This is because kitchen workers are exposed to potential allergens throughout their shifts.

For example, even if you did not have a food allergy when you began working at a seafood restaurant, you may develop one over time because of your eczema. Your inflamed skin is unable to protect you from the constant exposure to crustacean particles in the air.

This creates a cause-and-effect conundrum for researchers. Is eczema the result of a food allergy or does it lead to food allergies? Both situations are possible.

How to Prevent and Treat Allergy-Caused Eczema

The most common way to avoid primary and secondary allergic reactions is to avoid the substances that trigger symptoms. Some people need to avoid the allergens completely (like pets or peanuts) while others need to have the items prepared in certain ways – like cooked foods. For example, cooking fruit can break down the proteins that lead to allergic reactions. Someone who has an apple allergy might be able to still enjoy apple pie.

Additional stressors can also lead to worsened allergic reactions. This is because the body has limited resources to handle issues. For example, you may have worse secondary allergies to some fruits during the spring, which is peak pollen season in most areas. The sheer number of particles you are exposed to can lead to allergic reactions.

If you are under stress from work, aren’t sleeping well, or have poor dietary habits, your body might also experience worse allergic reactions as well. It simply can’t keep up with the pressure it is under.

If you do start to develop eczema symptoms, early treatment is one of the best ways to prevent discomfort and potential allergy development. Dr. Buddiga often prescribes a corticosteroid cream or ointment that will stop your itching and help repair the skin. While scratching feels good, it further irritates the skin and can cause eczema to spread and worsen. Dr. Buddiga may also prescribe medications that prevent inflammation for your eczema.

While you can’t prevent every allergic reaction you experience, you can take steps to lessen the symptoms. This will help your body recover faster while keeping your immune system strong.

Meet With Dr. Buddiga if you Have Eczema

If you experience eczema – even mild symptoms – make an appointment with Dr. Buddiga. He can evaluate your skin and help you identify the causes of the irritation. He may prescribe an allergy test to help you understand your triggers while also setting up a treatment process. Dr. Buddiga approaches each patient as a unique case, which means he can treat your allergies no matter how your symptoms appear or how old you are at the time of onset.

Dr. Buddia has trained and clinically rotated at some of the world’s best programs in Allergy & Immunology. He is board-certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology; a conjoint Board of The American Board of Internal Medicine and The American Board of Pediatrics. His expertise is sought out within his home state of California as well as across the US.

Request a consultation today and start treating your primary and secondary allergy symptoms.

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