Allergic reactions in residents of aged care homes – Why the hype?

Allergic reactions in residents of aged care homes – Why the hype?

Allergies are on the rise and they can be fatal. Four million Australians are affected by allergies and it is one of the fastest growing illnesses. At the same time, allergic reactions are increasing in their complexity and severity. Cathy Thesing, Accredited Practising Dietitian at Leading Nutrition, delves into her passion topic and shares some of her first-hand knowledge on how to manage allergens in an aged care setting.

Over the past three years there has been a five-fold increase in hospital admissions due to anaphylaxis (whole body allergic reactions). Of these hospitalisations, the 55 to 74-year-old age group are reported to suffer a higher degree of fatal anaphylactic reactions.

There are many things that can cause an allergic reaction, including foods, medications and insect bites, but in this article we will focus on key food allergens, namely: Peanuts, Tree nuts, Sesame, Wheat, Soy, Milk, Eggs, Fish and Shellfish.

What happens in an Allergic reaction?

An allergic reaction occurs when someone develops symptoms following exposure to an allergen. Symptoms may include hives, swelling of the lips, eyes or face, vomiting or wheezing.

Only some people with allergy antibodies will develop symptoms following exposure to the allergen, hence confirmation of an allergy by a specialist is required. Allergic reactions can range from mild to severe. Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction and can be fatal.

Allergies vs adverse reactions – the confusion!

The term allergy is often misused to describe any adverse reaction to foods which results in annoying (but ultimately harmless) symptoms, such as headaches after overindulging in chocolate or red wine, or bloating after drinking a milkshake or eating too much pasta. As these reactions are not allergic, the result is a widespread impression that adverse reactions to foods are trivial. This is far from the truth! While true allergies affect only a small percentage of the population, it’s vital that carers and catering teams understand the differences while treating both allergies and adverse reactions very seriously!

Adverse reactions include food intolerances, toxic reactions, food poisoning, enzyme deficiencies, food aversion or irritation from skin contact with certain foods. Adverse reactions can often be mistaken as a food allergy by the resident or family members, staff and other residents, making it a challenging task to navigate the food requirements for a nutritious menu, while providing residents what they like, ensuring food safety and now allergy safety.

Allergy safety – the task ahead

Allergy safety is essential in aged care. Our task as food providers and carers is to provide meals that are nutritious, appropriate and safe to eat. Safe to eat means not only hygienic safety, as is the current focus of many food safety plans, but also allergy safe.

This means:

  • Having a clear, documented communication system to ensure the correct meal reaches the resident
  • Eliminating cross contamination in food preparation and while serving food (the smallest amount of allergen can cause a reaction)
  • Checking food products that have several ingredients regularly, as these can change!
  • Strong safety procedures for allergic residents
  • Education on allergies to up-skill staff on correct processes
  • Embedding allergy safety into the food safety plan


Where to now?

The National Allergy Strategy Australia website provides a wealth of information on allergies and how to best respond.

SoupedUp can also support you with allergen management by ensuring your menu and ingredients are allergen-free. Allergens are clearly marked on SoupedUp recipes and if you are creating your own recipes, individual ingredients also indicate if they present an allergen risk. If you have any concerns, call SoupedUp Support on (03) 9543 4052.


Cathy Thesing is an Accredited Practising Dietitian at Leading Nutrition.

She has worked as a dietitian in aged care for over 14 years and during this time has developed a high quality model for nutrition excellence in an aged care setting. She is passionate about quality patient-centred care for residents and believes improved nutrition has enormous benefits to quality of life for our vulnerable older Australians.


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