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Food Allergies as You Age

5 Things You Should Know

Everyone can recall a horror story about a food allergy. Maybe you had a playmate when you were younger who couldn’t have food that had been made in the same facility with peanut products or you know of an acquaintance who has to carry around an EpiPen in case they come in contact with shellfish. When you hear about a food allergy, you probably think of the kind that a child develops early in life. However, many people don’t know that food allergies can appear well into adulthood. Keep reading to learn more about these allergies and how to manage them if you think it’s happened to you. 

By Anna Hill


Melanie Moyers headshot
Melanie Moyers
Consultant Dietician,
Morning Pointe Senior Living

1. Food allergies can develop at any age.

Most allergies do develop during childhood, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t develop later on. While it’s possible for someone to outgrow a childhood allergy, if it’s developed in adulthood, this likely will not happen. The most common allergies for an adult to develop that they hadn’t experienced earlier in life include: 

  • shellfish
  • fish
  • eggs
  • soybeans
  • wheat
  • cow’s milk
  • tree nuts
  • peanuts 

mature woman getting an allergy test at the doctor

2. Changing immune systems can lead to an allergy emerging in adulthood.

Though the exact cause of food allergies emerging later in life can’t always be determined, there are a few different things that can lead to a food allergy development. As the body ages, the immune system also ages, which can lead to a weaker defense against allergens. It can also be the result of a delayed or extended period of sensitization to an allergen. Sensitization is the first stage of developing an allergy when your body comes in contact with a harmless substance and mistakenly begins to produce IgE antibodies – also known as allergic antibodies – to fight off the substance in question. 

According to Melanie Moyers, a consultant dietician for Morning Pointe Senior Living, a newly developed allergy in adults can also be the result of a cross-reaction. “For example, if you have a known allergy to grass pollen, this may result in a cross-reaction food allergy to melons, oranges, and tomatoes.  An allergy to ragweed pollen may result in a food allergy to banana, cucumber, cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew, or zucchini,” she explains. Furthermore, stomach acid decreases as a person ages, which can increase susceptibility to sensitivities.


Illustrations of Common Food Allergens3. There’s a difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance.

A genuine food allergy looks fairly different than just a food intolerance. “A true food allergy is a very specific reaction that occurs usually between one minute and one hour of eating a specific food,” explains Dr. Jennifer Patel, an allergist with Chattanooga Allergy Clinic. An allergic reaction can be life-threatening and can include hives, shortness of breath, swelling, severe stomach pain, and low blood pressure. The only treatment for this kind of reaction is an epinephrine injector, commonly known as an EpiPen or the generic equivalent.

If you have a food intolerance, an EpiPen won’t help, as it’s not an allergen causing the symptoms. Food intolerance symptoms are less serious than an allergic reaction and are generally limited to trouble with digestion. Furthermore, some people with a food intolerance can still ingest smaller amounts of the food in question without significant adverse effects. One of the best-known examples of this is lactose intolerance. Some people with this kind of intolerance can still drink lactose-free milk, consume low-dairy cheese, or even still enjoy dairy products every once in a while, as long as they take lactase enzyme pills such as Lactaid. 


4. Food allergy symptoms in children and adults are generally the same. 

The title says it all. Though allergies can develop at different times in a person’s life, the symptoms are more or less the same across the board. However, some demographics are at a higher risk of being unprepared for a bad reaction. “Teenagers are at a higher risk of reacting, due to being less vigilant about avoiding their allergen, and they are more likely not to carry their epinephrine injector,” says Dr. Patel. Teens are often more likely to engage in risky behavior than other groups, which makes it incredibly important for them to always carry their injector with them.


Jennifer Patel headshot
Dr. Jennifer Patel Allergist, Chattanooga Allergy Clinic

5. In most cases, the only way to truly manage a food allergy is to avoid the allergen entirely. 

For the vast majority of adults with food allergies, the only way to make sure you don’t have a reaction is to stay vigilant about not consuming it in any form or fashion – though there is a small exception. “Occasionally, some fruit and vegetable allergies may be managed by cooking the food, which changes the protein structure. This way, the immune system no longer identifies the food as a threat and decreases the food allergy reaction,” Moyers explains. 

Otherwise, there are several steps you’ll need to take to keep yourself safe. Be sure to check food labels prior to snacking, and avoid inadvertent contact with allergens by staying informed about what’s being prepared in the kitchen where your food is being cooked. Inform your server about your allergy while eating out, and if necessary, bring your own food to functions where you can’t guarantee your ability to avoid cross-contact with the allergen. 


If you suspect you have a food allergy, don’t hesitate to consult with an allergist or your physician. A simple food allergy test can give you the answers you’re looking for.

Allergen free food substitues

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