In most people, food can be eaten without any problems. If a person is allergic to a certain food, they can have a mild to severe allergic reaction. The person has developed antibodies to the food, and when even the smallest amount of this food is eaten, the body’s immune system begins to defend itself from the food it thinks is harmful. It releases antibodies known as immunoglobulin E (lgE) antibodies to neutralize an allergen. A chemical neurotransmitter called histamine, along with other chemicals, is released into your blood stream. This causes an allergic response that can include a dripping nose, itchy eyes, dry throat, rashes, hives, eczema, nausea and/or vomiting, diarrhea, labored breathing, and even anaphylactic shock.
A food allergy can begin at any age, but often starts in childhood. Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies. Food allergies affect 1 in every 13 children in the United States. According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011.
Many children who have a food allergy to milk, eggs, wheat, and soy outgrow the allergy by the age of 5, if they avoid the food. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish tend to be a lifelong allergy. In older children and adults, the most common food allergies are:
- Peanuts (and peanut butter)
- Tree nuts
- Food additives – such as dyes, thickeners, and preservatives
Diagnosing a Food Allergy
There are several different methods in diagnosing a food allergy. Your primary care doctor, gastroenterologist, or other specialist may order a blood test called a radioallergosorbent test (RAST). The RAST test looks for specific allergen-related antibodies in order to identify your allergy triggers. Your allergist may conduct a skin prick test. The RAST test and skin prick test are both proven diagnostic methods, however sometimes your doctor will take into account both test results and the information from your medical history to provide a more accurate diagnosis.
Treating a Food Allergy
After you learn what food causes an allergic reaction, avoid eating that food or any other food that contains the food causing the allergic reaction as an ingredient. For example, if peanuts cause an allergic reaction, don’t eat peanuts or anything that contains peanuts such as cookies, candies and other foods. Start reading the food labels so you will know if the food you are allergic to is listed. A dietitian can help you learn how to read labels. Medications can also be prescribed that can help with allergic reaction symptoms.
In some people, a food allergy can trigger a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Life-threatening symptoms can occur within 2 minutes, and include:
- Constriction and tightening of airways
- A swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in your throat that makes it difficult to breathe
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness
Emergency treatment is critical for anaphylaxis. If untreated, it can cause coma or death.
When a food allergy is involved, grocery shopping takes extra time. You must carefully read each ingredient listed on the food label. Manufacturers will frequently change the ingredients of their products. Read the ingredient label every time you buy a food, even if you have bought it before. It is important to be educated on specific words and derivatives of the allergen when reading food labels to ensure you don’t miss a “hidden” ingredient that contains the food they are allergic to. If the ingredient statement says that it is processed in a facility that also processes the allergen, you also need to avoid the product due to cross-contamination.
Care must be taken in the kitchen to avoid contact with allergenic ingredients. Cross-contamination is what happens when one food comes into contact with another, causing their proteins to mix. As a result of cross-contamination, each food contains small amounts of the other food it came into contact with. For example, if a knife is used to spread peanut butter and only wiped clean before spreading the jelly, there could be enough peanut protein remaining on the knife to cause a reaction in a peanut-allergic person. Be sure that all equipment and utensils are cleaned with hot, soapy water before each food is prepared.
Eating Away from Home
Hidden ingredients and cross-contamination are common causes of food-allergic reactions in restaurants. If you choose to eat at a restaurant, ask the server or manager about all of the ingredients and the way the food is prepared.
Childcare, School and Camps
If your child has a food allergy, it is important to work with school, camp staff, and child care providers to plan how the food allergy will be managed and how an allergic reaction will be recognized and treated. Often times, the school or child care facility will require medical documentation or a letter in order to accommodate your child’s needs.
Infants with Food Allergies
When introducing solid foods to an infant who has a family history of allergies:
- Only introduce one new food every 5 days to ensure they are not having an allergic reaction
- In general, starting with rice cereal then progressing to vegetables is recommended.
Group Name: FACET
Our mission is to improve the social aspect of food allergy through support, education, and advocacy as a group of individuals and families affected by food allergies and anaphylaxis.