Understanding Food Allergies

Food allergies have become increasingly more common within the last ten years. There are a number of foods, such as peanuts, soy, shelled fish, diary products and food additives that cause these allergies. It is important to understand how food allergies occur, how to treat them, and how to properly determine whether or not a true food allergy is present.

Facts about food allergies

  • An allergy is an immune response. When a person has a reaction to a certain food or ingredient, the immune system is actually attempting to defend itself as if the food was a toxin, germ, or bacteria.
  • More than half of reported allergies appear within the first year of life.
  • Four times more children than adults have food allergies, which suggests that they are becoming more common.
  • Food allergy tests are very sensitive and sometimes yield false positives. It is important to tract diet and symptoms to increase the chances of a proper diagnosis.
  • Severe food allergies, anaphylaxis, can be life threatening.
  • Having a food allergy is not the same as food intolerance.

How is a food allergy different from food intolerance?

Food intolerance is a chemical reaction, rather than an immune response, to a particular food or drink. Food intolerance does not lead to anaphylaxis or other severe reactions.

While many of the symptoms of food intolerance are like allergic reactions, intolerance has some unique symptoms such as headaches, sweating, and burning sensations on the skin.

What are the symptoms of food allergies?

Common symptoms include:

  • Itchy and watery eyes
  • Swelling around the mouth and/or throat
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin rashes or hives
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Runny nose
  • Burning sensation around the mouth
  • Irritability
  • Muscle convulsions
  • Fatigue

What are the most common causes of food allergies?

It is more likely for a child to develop an allergy if they have one or more family members with asthma, eczema or other allergic diseases. The likelihood can be as little as 20%, if only one other relative is allergic. The more family members that have allergic diseases, the more likely it is that the child will develop a food or other type of allergy, up to an 80% chance.

Children are most commonly allergic to peanuts. Soy, milk, eggs, and nuts account for approximately 90% of food allergies. Other items such as berries, cucumbers, oysters, shrimp, crab, gluten, and food additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), are also known to provoke reactions in some people.

Sometimes other medical conditions can be the cause. See a doctor if you are experiencing symptoms.

How to cope with food allergies?

According to Jay M. Portnoy, MD, chief of allergy, asthma, and immunology at Children's Mercy Hospital, Food allergies are often misunderstood. Sometimes people avoid foods that they are not really allergic to, and nutritional problems can result. Portnoy suggests that it is unlikely that someone is allergic to more than two foods, so testing is important. Don’t just assume you have a food allergy.

If you do have a food allergy, check labels of the food products you purchase to avoid those ingredients.  The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code and the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 require the proper warning labels and ingredient lists on food products regulated in Australia or the United States. The United Kingdom Food Standards Agency has similar laws requiring the disclosure or ingredients that are known to cause reactions in some people.

According to Portnoy, children can outgrow allergies, in other words become tolerant, over time. This is not likely with nuts, but other foods such as milk and soy may not be a life-long allergy. It is important to retest after a few years.

What to do when symptoms occur

Symptoms can occur immediately after eating the food, or several hours later (sometimes the next day). Monitor what foods you recently ate to try and determine which food caused the reaction, if any. Go to the doctor at your earliest convenience if the symptoms are mild. Suggest the specific foods that may be causing the reaction and get tested.

If the allergy is confirmed, avoid this food, and remember to read food labels carefully.

Severe reactions can be life threatening, particularly if there is difficultly breathing. A swelling throat can lead to suffocation and death. Anaphylactic shock, or extreme drop in blood pressure, should be treated immediately and the individual should be rushed to the hospital emergency room. They may need adrenalin or epinephrine. Adrenalin may be available by prescription if necessary.

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Helpful Resources;

The Better Health Channel Food Allergy and Intolerance

US Food and Drug Administration Food Allergies: Reducing the Risks (video)

UK Food Standards Agency Eat well, be well: Food allergy and intolerance


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