Food allergy is when the body mistakes a certain food as “dangerous” and produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). This IgE antibody reacts with the allergen (i.e., dangerous food item) and chemicals are released into the body causing an allergic reaction. Symptoms of a food allergy reaction may be mild (rashes, hives, itching, swelling) or severe (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness). A food allergy can potentially be fatal.
Avoidance is the only treatment for food allergy. There is no cure. Neither desensitization nor shots have proven to be a safe or an effective way of reducing food allergy reactions.
Food Allergy vs. Adverse Food Reaction
Food allergies are often confused with adverse food reactions. Lactose intolerance is an example of an adverse food reaction. A person who is lactose intolerant lacks the proper enzymes to digest the sugar found in milk and dairy products properly. This affects the digestive system and a person may have symptoms of diarrhea and stomach cramping if he/she ingests a milk or dairy product. The severity of symptoms is generally related to the amount of food ingested.
A food allergy, on the other hand, involves the immune system. While the symptoms of a minor food allergy and adverse food reactions may be similar, the biology is different. The release of chemicals in an allergy attack can cause symptoms as minor as a scratchy throat, sniffles, and puffy eyes to major symptoms like swelling of the tongue and throat, coughing, and/or hives covering the entire body. In rare instances, if someone has a food allergy, ingestion of that food can lead to anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal.
Less than 5 percent of the population has a true food allergy. This small number, though, and should not minimize the importance of recognizing and treating a food allergy.
What to Do if You Suspect a Food Allergy
Our allergy specialists can help identify to which foods you are allergic. To aid in the doctor’s diagnosis, keep a journal of everything you eat, what symptoms you experience, and how long after you eat that the symptoms appear. Maintain this journal for one to two weeks and bring it with you when you go to the doctor.
Often the food causing the allergic reaction is obvious. For instance, if classic allergy symptoms appear a few minutes after eating a food on several occasions, further tests may not be needed to identify that particular food as the offender. If a food allergy is suspected, but the offending food is not obvious then allergy skin testing or other types of tests performed by a board-certified allergy and asthma specialist will help in its identification.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Know what you are eating. If you are eating out, ask the waiter what ingredients are being used and be very clear with him or her what you can or cannot eat. If the waiter is unsure, ask him/her to check with the chef. In the market, carefully read the labels before you buy.
- Birthday parties can be a challenge to a child with a food allergy. Be sure that the host parents know that your child has allergies. Educate your child, so he or she knows which foods are okay and not okay to eat. Alert teachers or childcare workers of the food allergy and the potential symptoms of an allergic reaction.
- If anaphylaxis is a possibility, you should talk to your doctor about knowing how to use and carrying injectable epinephrine in case of an emergency.
Don’t suffer from untreated allergies. Schedule an appointment today with one of our board-certified allergists, and move towards a safe, healthier tomorrow.