Food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. Even a tiny amount of the allergy-causing food can trigger signs and symptoms such as digestive problems, hives or swollen airways. In some people, a food allergy can cause severe symptoms or even a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.
Food allergy affects an estimated 6 to 8 percent of children under age 3 and up to 3 percent of adults. While there's no cure, some children outgrow their food allergy as they get older.
It's easy to confuse a food allergy with a much more common reaction known as food intolerance. While bothersome, food intolerance is a less serious condition that does not involve the immune system.
For some people, an allergic reaction to a particular food may be uncomfortable but not severe. For other people, an allergic food reaction can be frightening and even life-threatening. Food allergy symptoms usually develop within a few minutes to two hours after eating the offending food.
The most common food allergy signs and symptoms include:
In some people, a food allergy can trigger a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This can cause life-threatening signs and symptoms, including:
Emergency treatment is critical for anaphylaxis. Untreated, anaphylaxis can cause a coma or even death.
See a doctor or allergist if you have food allergy symptoms shortly after eating. If possible, see your doctor when the allergic reaction is occurring. This will help your doctor make a diagnosis.
Seek emergency treatment if you develop any signs or symptoms of anaphylaxis, such as:
When you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly identifies a specific food or a substance in food as something harmful. In respose, your immune system triggers cells to release an antibody known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) to neutralize the allergy-causing food or food substance (the allergen).
The next time you eat even the smallest amount of that food, IgE antibodies sense it and signal your immune system to release a chemical called histamine, as well as other chemicals, into your bloodstream. These chemicals cause allergy symptoms.
Also known as oral allergy syndrome, pollen-food allergy syndrome affects many people who have hay fever. In this condition, certain fresh fruits and vegetables or nuts and spices can trigger an allergic reaction that causes the mouth to tingle or itch. In serious cases, the reaction results in swelling of the throat or even anaphylaxis.
Proteins in certain fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices cause the reaction because they're similar to allergy-causing proteins found in certain pollens. This is an example of cross-reactivity.
When you cook foods that trigger pollen-food allergy syndrome, your symptoms may be less severe.
This following table shows the specific fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices that can cause pollen-food allergy syndrome in people who are allergic to different pollens.
|If you are allergic to:||Birch pollen||Ragweed pollen||Grasses||Mugwort pollen|
|You may also have a reaction to:||Almond
Some herbs and spices (anise, caraway, coriander, fennel, parsley)
Melons (cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon)
Melons (cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon)
Some herbs and spices (anise, black pepper, caraway seed, coriander, fennel, mustard, parsley)
Eating certain foods may cause some people to feel itchy and lightheaded soon after starting to exercise. Serious cases may even involve hives or anaphylaxis. Not eating for a couple of hours before exercising and avoiding certain foods may help prevent this problem.
A food intolerance or a reaction to another substance you ate may cause the same signs and symptoms as a food allergy does â such as nausea, vomiting, cramping and diarrhea.
Depending on the type of food intolerance you have, you may be able to eat small amounts of problem foods without a reaction. By contrast, if you have a true food allergy, even a tiny amount of food may trigger an allergic reaction.
One of the tricky aspects of diagnosing food intolerance is that some people are sensitive not to the food itself but to a substance or ingredient used in the preparation of the food.
Common conditions that can cause symptoms mistaken for a food allergy include:
Celiac disease. While celiac disease is sometimes referred to as a gluten allergy, it does not result in anaphylaxis. Like a food allergy, it does involve an immune system response, but it's a unique reaction that's more complex than a simple food allergy.
This chronic digestive condition is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in bread, pasta, cookies, and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye.
If you have celiac disease and eat foods containing gluten, an immune reaction occurs that causes damage to the surface of your small intestine, leading to an inability to absorb certain nutrients.
There's no perfect test used to confirm or rule out a food allergy. Your doctor will consider a number of factors before making a diagnosis. These factors include.
A skin test. A skin prick test can determine your reaction to a particular food. In this test, a small amount of the suspected food is placed on the skin of your forearm or back. A doctor or another health professional then pricks your skin with a needle to allow a tiny amount of the substance beneath your skin surface.
If you're allergic to a particular substance being tested, you develop a raised bump or reaction. Keep in mind, a positive reaction to this test alone isn't enough to confirm a food allergy.
A blood test. A blood test can measure your immune system's response to particular foods by measuring the allergy-related antibody known as immunoglobulin E (IgE).
For this test, a blood sample taken in your doctor's office is sent to a medical laboratory, where different foods can be tested.
Elimination diet.You may be asked to eliminate suspect foods for a week or two and then add the food items back into your diet one at a time. This process can help link symptoms to specific foods. However, elimination diets aren't foolproof.
An elimination diet can't tell you whether your reaction to a food is a true allergy instead of a food sensitivity. Also, if you've had a severe reaction to a food in the past, an elimination diet may not be safe.
Complications of food allergy can include:
The best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to know and avoid foods that cause signs and symptoms. For some people, this is a mere inconvenience, but others find it a greater hardship. Also, some foods â when used as ingredients in certain dishes â may be well-hidden. This is especially true in restaurants and in other social settings.
If you know you have a food allergy, follow these steps:
Be careful at restaurants. Be certain your server or chef is aware that you absolutely can't eat the food you're allergic to, and you need to be completely certain that the meal you order doesn't contain it. Also, make sure food isn't prepared on surfaces or in pans that contained any of the food you're allergic to.
Don't be reluctant to make your needs known. Restaurant staff members are usually more than happy to help when they clearly understand your request.
If your child has a food allergy, take these precautions to ensure his or her safety:
Research on alternative food allergy treatments is limited. However, many people do try them and claim that certain treatments help.
Acupuncture point injection therapy has been found to be beneficial for the treatment of hives, although more research is needed to confirm these findings. If you decide to try one of these treatments, be sure you work with an experienced and certified provider.
One of the keys to preventing an allergic reaction is to completely avoid the food that causes your symptoms.
Don't assume. Always read food labels to make sure they don't contain an ingredient you're allergic to. Even if you think you know what's in a food, check the label. Ingredients sometimes change.
Food labels are required to clearly list whether they contain any common food allergens. Read food labels carefully to avoid the most common sources of food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.
When in doubt, say no thanks. At restaurants and social gatherings, you're always taking a risk that you might eat a food you're allergic to. Many people don't understand the seriousness of an allergic food reaction and may not realize that a tiny amount of a food can cause a severe reaction in some people.
If you have any suspicion at all that a food may contain something you're allergic to, steer clear.
Involve caregivers. If your child has a food allergy, enlist the help of relatives, baby sitters, teachers and other caregivers. Make sure that they understand how important it is for your child to avoid the allergy-causing food and they know what to do in an emergency.
It's also important to let caregivers know what steps they can take to prevent a reaction in the first place, such as careful hand-washing and cleaning any surfaces that might have come in contact with the allergy-causing food.
A food allergy can be a source of ongoing concern that affects life at home, school and work. Daily activities that are easy for most families, such as grocery shopping and meal preparation, can become occasions of stress for families and caregivers living with food allergies.
Keep these strategies in mind to help manage your or your child's food allergy-related stress:
Connect with others. The opportunity to discuss food allergies and exchange information with others who share your concerns can be very helpful.
Many internet sites and nonprofit organizations offer information and forums for discussing food allergies. Some are specifically for parents of children with food allergies. The Food Allergy Research & Education website can direct you to support groups and events in your area.
Food allergy risk factors include:
Age. Food allergies are more common in children, especially toddlers and infants. As you grow older, your digestive system matures and your body is less likely to absorb food or food components that trigger allergies.
Fortunately, children typically outgrow allergies to milk, soy, wheat and eggs. Severe allergies and allergies to nuts and shellfish are more likely to be lifelong.
Factors that may increase your risk of developing an anaphylactic reaction include: