Food allergies are a common and potentially serious problem that affects more than 15 million Americans. They’ve been on the rise in recent years, particularly in children, causing a growing public health concern. Reasons for the increase are still uncertain.
During Food Allergy Action Month, it’s important to educate yourself on common food allergy triggers and symptoms in order to avoid and treat dangerous reactions, in yourself or your child.
A food allergy response occurs when the immune system overreacts to a food, identifies it as a danger, and triggers a response. A food allergy reaction can range from a mild response, like an itchy mouth, to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that impairs breathing and causes a sudden drop in blood pressure, sending the body into shock.
Some people may confuse food intolerance for food allergy, though the two are different. Food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems, such as an intolerance to lactose in milk and cheese. In contrast, a food allergy causes an immune reaction that affects numerous organs.
Eight food groups account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.
However, any food can cause an allergic reaction. People may also experience reactions to related foods, like peanuts and tree nuts, or may have an allergic reaction to a food they’ve eaten before with no reaction.
Food allergy symptoms usually occur within a few hours, or even minutes, of ingesting the food. Mild food allergy symptoms include vomiting, stomach cramps, hives, shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. More severe symptoms include circulatory collapse, swelling of the tongue and throat, weak pulse, paleness and dizziness.
Food allergy symptoms may change with each reaction, and tend to get more serious over time.
Food allergies can develop at any point in life, but are most common in babies and children. They can also be genetic, but are difficult to predict, so parents should practice caution when children try foods for the first time.
The most effective treatment for food allergies is to avoid the food that causes the allergy. People with food allergies should carefully check food labels before consuming foods and use caution when eating at restaurants.
Mild food allergy symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter antihistamines. Those at risk for anaphylaxis may be prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen) for emergency situations. Parents of children with allergies are advised to create an “allergy plan” if their child has a reaction.
To determine if you have a food allergy, visit your primary care physician, who can ask questions regarding the reaction, conduct an exam to identify or exclude other medical problems, or refer you to an allergist. You may be encouraged to keep a food diary, or eliminate suspect foods for a week or two.
Addressing a food allergy early could save a life.
Dr. Benjamin Rambicure is with Family Medicine, KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.