ABCs of Food Allergies

By Emily Frady

Who has food allergies?

According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), around 15 million people in the U.S. have some type of food allergy. Adults account for about nine million of that number while children account for about six million. In a percentage perspective, that means 4% of adults and 8% of children have food allergies. A higher percentage of food allergies in children could be attributed to the fact that children sometimes leave their egg, milk, wheat, and soy allergies behind as they age. However, if an allergy is acquired in adulthood, it probably means that you have developed a lifetime companion.

 

Allergy vs. Intolerance

If these numbers seem small compared to the people you know who claim to have food allergies, you may come in contact with more people that have “food intolerance” instead of a true food allergy. Although food allergies and food intolerances can manifest themselves with similar symptoms, a true food allergy is an immune system reaction that treats the offending food like an intruder. For instance, lactose intolerance means your body is unable to properly digest lactose found in milk or other dairy products. Lactose intolerance is not an allergy to milk because ingesting the lactose does not cause an immune system response.

What are the symptoms?

Eating an allergenic food will most likely cause your body to react and show signs or symptoms within an hour of consumption. The FDA reports the most common signs and symptoms of food allergies as follows:

• Hives, itching, or skin rash

• Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body

• Wheezing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing

• Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting

• Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting

 

Anaphylaxis

Although food allergy symptoms can be mild, they have life-threatening potential. In some cases, food allergies can lead to anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that affects the entire body and occurs when tissues in the body release histamine and other substances, causing airways to tighten and leading to other serious symptoms, including:

• Swelling of the throat and air passages

• Shock, with a severe drop in blood pressure

• Rapid, irregular pulse

• Loss of consciousness

If you feel that you or someone around you may be experiencing anaphylaxis, it is extremely important to call 911 immediately. Someone with food allergies will probably carry a prescription epinephrine auto-injector device. This should be administered immediately if anaphylaxis occurs.

Do I have food allergies?

If you suspect you may have food allergies, a doctor will need to make an assessment using your history, a diet diary, and an elimination diet. As you might suspect, discussing your history and asking questions about instances of suspected allergen consumption will probably benefit your doctor most in diagnosing a food allergy. If necessary, a doctor may suggest an elimination diet – removing the suspected “trigger foods” from your diet. Sometimes, oral food challenges and skin testing are used in diagnoses. If a skin test cannot be performed because of anaphylactic reactions or skin conditions, your doctor may call for a blood test.

I have a food allergy—what now?

If you are diagnosed with a food allergy, the primary treatment is to completely remove the food from your diet. This may require some intensive reading on ingredient lists and labels. Some foods containing common allergenic foods like peanuts, eggs, and milk may not be obvious, so always check food ingredients.

 

Eating Out

Eating out can be a risk with food allergies because of unintentional contamination – such as allergens transferred through utensils and cookware. If you choose to eat out, it may require some inquiry on your part about ingredients in food and suggestion for preparation.

 

Be ready!

If you are unintentionally exposed to food allergens, be ready! Some food allergy symptoms can be relieved with antihistamines or bronchodilators. However, it is also important to be prepared to take action for an anaphylactic reaction by carrying an epinephrine auto-injector at all times. 

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