June 07, 2023

Signs You Have a Food Allergy

checking for egg allergy symptoms

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food allergies affect up to 6% of children and 4% of adults. Food allergy symptoms vary but can be life-threatening for some people. There’s no cure for food allergies. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid the food completely.

It’s important to understand that food allergies and intolerance are different conditions. Food allergies cause an immune system reaction. Food intolerance (to milk, for example) can cause unpleasant symptoms but doesn’t activate the immune system. And there are ways to counter many types of food intolerance, such as taking enzyme pills to help you digest the lactose in milk and prevent or reduce your symptoms. 

Food Allergy Symptoms

Food allergies occur because the body’s immune system incorrectly identifies a food or a substance in it as dangerous and initiates a protective reaction to it. The most severe reaction is called anaphylaxis. It affects the entire body, producing physiological responses like impaired breathing, dropping blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, and others.

It’s important to note that the reaction to a food can vary from one occurrence to another. For example, a food that caused a mild reaction in one encounter can cause severe symptoms in another.

Most food allergy symptoms occur within two hours of eating, and in many cases, symptoms occur within minutes. In rare cases, the reaction may occur as much as four to six hours (or longer) after ingestion.

Common food allergy symptoms include:

  • Hives
  • Stomach cramps
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swelling of the tongue and difficulty speaking or breathing
  • Skin changes (food allergy skin reactions can include pale or blue skin coloring)
  • Anaphylaxis

While food allergies are most often detected in children, they can develop at any age.

Common Food Allergy Triggers

Any food can potentially be a trigger for food allergies. However, the most common are:

  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Milk
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Soy

If you suspect you or your child has a food allergy, it’s essential to talk with your doctor. They can order tests to determine which foods, if any, are triggers.

Food Allergy Testing and Diagnosis

Doctors diagnose food allergies by getting information about your symptoms and family history of allergies. They then perform a physical exam to determine if other health issues are causing or contributing to your symptoms. 

Based on their findings, they may order one or more of these food allergy testing procedures: 

  • Skin test. Your doctor or another healthcare provider puts a small amount of a potential food allergen on the skin of your forearm or back and then pricks it, allowing a bit of the material to get under the skin. If you’re allergic to that substance, a small bump develops. However, be aware that a skin test is informative but not conclusive. 
  • Blood test. Doctors use blood tests to determine if the body releases an allergy-related antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE) when exposed to specific foods. Your doctor sends a blood sample to a medical lab for testing.
  • Elimination diet. In this process, you remove foods from your diet for a few weeks if you or your doctor suspect they may cause an allergic reaction. Then you add them back to your diet one at a time, watching for symptoms as you go. This approach has limitations, as it isn’t the best for distinguishing between food allergy and food intolerance symptoms. It also isn’t appropriate for foods that previously caused a severe allergic reaction. 
  • Oral food challenge. You take this test at your doctor’s office. It involves consuming gradually increasing amounts of suspected foods. If you don’t have an allergic reaction, you likely can continue eating them safely. 

How Are Food Allergies Treated?

The only way to prevent allergic reactions to foods is to avoid consuming them. If you accidentally ingest a portion of food that causes a minor allergic reaction, you can take an over-the-counter or prescription antihistamine to reduce your symptoms. 

If you experience a severe allergic reaction, you may need an emergency epinephrine injection from an autoinjector. Everyone with a food allergy should always have one or more autoinjectors with them. If you use one to counteract a severe allergic reaction, you should still go to an emergency room for follow-up care and monitoring as soon as possible. 

Hope for People with Food Allergies

While there is no cure for food allergies, there’s reason for optimism. Research continues, and experts are hopeful they’ll find the key to correcting the body’s overreaction to foods. In addition, some people outgrow their food allergies. 

However, for now, strict avoidance and carrying epinephrine autoinjectors are crucial.  

If you have — or think you might have — a food allergy, Baptist Health’s allergy experts can help. Learn more today. 

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