What Are Food Allergies?
An overreaction by your body’s immune system to something in the environment is called an allergy. Food allergies are immunological responses to food. The causes are not entirely understood but food allergies are surprisingly common in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that four percent of all adults and from four to six percent of all children have food allergies.
Food allergies are not the same thing as food intolerances. Food allergies are caused by the body’s hypersensitivity to certain foods. Food intolerances center in the digestive system and are marked by different symptoms – bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea – than food allergies.
What Are Food Allergy Symptoms?
Food allergies have many symptoms, running the gamut from mild to severe. They can manifest at any time from several minutes to several hours after the consumption of an allergen. Under certain circumstances, food allergies can be life-threatening and result in death.
Common Signs & Symptoms
Some of the more frequent signs of a food allergy include:
- Hives or rashes
- Labored breathing
- Stomach cramps and vomiting
- Strong cough
- Throat constriction and difficulty swallowing
- Swollen tongue
- Weak pulse
- Pale or blue-tinged skin
- Dizziness and fainting
- Circulatory collapse
In extreme cases, food allergies can cause anaphylaxis, which is the sudden and severe onset of multiple allergy symptoms, and may result in breathing difficulties, declines in blood pressure, a state of shock, and death. Anaphylaxis should be addressed as a medical emergency. It is treated by medical personnel with the administration of intravenous fluids and one or more epinephrine (adrenalin) injections.
Which Foods Trigger Allergies?
The origin of food allergies lies in your body’s mistaken identification of an otherwise safe and nutritious food item as a threat to its immunological health. It causes you to develop antibodies to the allergen, which, in turn, trigger the release of histamines and other chemicals to combat the allergen whenever it’s present in your system. It is these secondary secretions that generate your body’s allergic reactions.
Any food can be implicated in a food allergy. There are, however, eight categories of food that drive about 90 percent of all known allergic reactions:
- Dairy (especially milk)
- Tree nuts
The most common food allergies in adults are peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, and the pollens of certain fruits and vegetables. The most common juvenile food allergens are milk, eggs, and peanuts.
Mustard and sesame seeds are two other known sources of food allergies.
How Do I Know If I Have a Food Allergy?
Identifying food allergies is a process. There is no single test for determining the existence of a food allergy as opposed to other medical conditions. When attempting a diagnosis, your physician may pursue several avenues of inquiry, including:
- Documenting your symptoms. Which foods and in what quantities are causing you problems?
- Noting your family medical history. Do other members of your family have allergies (food or otherwise)?
- Conducting a physical exam. The exam’s purpose is the elimination of possible alternative causes to having a food allergy.
- Arranging a skin-prick test. Skin-prick tests look for evidence of reaction to a miniscule amount of the allergen.
- Arranging a blood test. Blood tests measure the level of immunoglobulin E, or IgE, an antibody manufactured by your immune system in response to the introduction of a food allergen.
- Designing an elimination diet. Certain foods are eliminated from, and then reintroduced to, your diet, to ascertain their relationship to your symptoms.
- Conducting an oral-food challenge. An oral-food challenge is similar to the skin-prick test, except that food is introduced orally rather than topically.
How Are Food Allergies Treated?
There is only one sure way to forgo the problems associated with food allergies, and that is by avoiding your known allergens (and being cautious with other foods similar to them, for example, tree nuts if you’re allergic to peanuts).
Avoidance is easier said than done. If you’re:
- Cooking your own meals, always check the ingredients listed on any package goods or processed foods you buy.
- Dining out, speak with your servers, chefs, or restaurant manager about the limitations imposed on food preparation by your allergies. Many restaurants publish their menus online so you can determine beforehand the safest items for consumption. You can also inform restaurants of your food allergies ahead of time when using internet booking applications.
Despite your best efforts, you may on occasion come into contact with a food allergen. Minor reactions can be treated with over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines. More serious reactions call for the administration of epinephrine. Be sure to keep your epinephrine autoinjector with you at all times, and that you know how to use it. Make certain, too, that family members, or others who are close to you, know how to administer the drug as well.
Baptist Health Can Help
If you suspect that you have a food allergy, be sure to see a physician. He or she can determine the true nature and extent of your condition, and make recommendations for managing it, including any necessary medications. You can start the ball rolling by contacting an allergy specialist in the Baptist Health medical network.