A food allergy is an exaggerated immune response triggered by eggs, peanuts, milk, or some other specific food.
So what causes the body to have such a bad response to harmless, even healthy foods? The body is constantly defending itself from illness and foreign bodies. In some people, their bodies produce antibodies that fight not only bad things, but mistakenly fight good things as well.
Any food can cause an allergic reaction, but a few foods are the main culprits. In children, the most common food allergies are to:
- Shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster, snails, clams)
- Tree nuts
Children are often the ones suffering from food allergies, as these allergies often start in childhood. Many children grow out of their specific food allergy, even as early as age five. Some food allergies tend to be lifelong, however, such allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish.
Food additives—such as dyes, thickeners, and preservatives—may rarely cause an allergic or intolerance reaction.
Fruits and vegetables can also be the source of allergic problems. Allergens in certain fruits and vegetables are similar to pollens. For example, a melon allergy and a ragweed allergy are similar.
The truth is that while many people think they have food allergies, only a small fraction of people actually have true allergies. Most symptoms people experience are caused by food intolerances rather than allergies. Some examples:
- Corn products
- Cow’s milk and dairy products ( Lactose intolerance)
- Wheat and other gluten-containing grains (Celiac disease)
If many people mistake food intolerance for food allergy, how can one identify the symptoms correctly?
- Symptoms will usually hit within two hours of eating.
- Hives, hoarseness of voice and wheezing are key symptoms of a food allergy.
- Abdominal pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Itching of the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, or any area
- Light-headedness or fainting
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Swelling (angioedema), especially of the eyelids, face, lips, and tongue
- Shortness of breath
- Stomach cramps
Symptoms of oral allergy syndrome, however, are more like this:
- Itchy lips, tongue, and throat
- Swollen lips (sometimes)
Exams and Tests
Experiencing any of the symptoms above should send you to a doctor, preferably an allergist. Food allergy testing is the first part of making you or your child’s life much better.
In some reactions, swelling occurs and airways become blocked. In other cases, blood pressure lowers. Dr. Jones will perform blood and skin tests to identify elevated antibody levels which will confirm whether or not you have an allergy.
Food allergy treatment is a promising field of medicine. Dr. Jones and Rocky Mountain Allergy recently launched their food allergy treatment program, called Road to No Reaction, which is the only such program in the state.
As part of the treatment, patients, who are often children, undergo a progressive treatment of being introduced to the food the are allergic to.
Anyone diagnosed with a food allergy should carry (and know how to use) injectable epinephrine at all times. If you develop any type of serious or whole-body reaction (even hives) after eating the offending food, inject the epinephrine. Then go to the nearest hospital or emergency facility, preferably by ambulance. Seek immediate medical attention after injecting epinephrine for a food reaction.
Avoiding the offending foods may be easy if the food is uncommon or easily identified. However, you may need to severely restrict your diet, carefully read all package ingredients, and ask detailed questions when eating away from home.
Anaphylaxis is a severe, whole-body allergic reaction that is life-threatening. Consult with an allergist about whether or not you should carry injectable epinephrine. Although people with oral allergy syndrome rarely have an anaphylactic reaction, they should ask their doctor whether they need to carry injectable epinephrine.
Food allergies can trigger or worsen asthma, eczema, or other disorders.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
- Call your local emergency number, such as 911, if you have any serious or whole-body reactions (particularly wheezing or difficulty breathing) after eating a food.
- If your doctor prescribed epinephrine for severe reactions, inject it as soon as possible, even BEFORE calling 911. The sooner you inject the epinephrine, the better.
- Anyone who has had an allergic reaction to a food should be evaluated by an allergy specialist.
Research indicates that breastfeeding may help reduce the risks of allergies in children. But beyond this, prevention techniques are unknown. Sometimes it may be recommended to delay introducing allergy-causing foods to infants until their GI tract matures. Fortunately, treatment options are becoming more widely accepted for children suffering from food allergies.