Food Allergy

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is an immune system response to a food that the body mistakenly believes is harmful. Once the immune system decides that a particular food is harmful, it creates specific antibodies to it. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, including histamine, in order to protect the body. These chemicals trigger a cascade of allergic symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, or cardiovascular system. Scientists estimate that approximately 12 million Americans suffer from true food allergies.

Although an individual could be allergic to any food, such as fruits, vegetables, and meats, there are eight foods that account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions. These are: milk, egg, peanut, tree nut (walnut, cashew, etc.), fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.

What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?

Although food intolerances share some of the symptoms of food allergies, they do not involve the immune system.  They can cause great discomfort but are not life-threatening.  People with food intolerances are not able to digest certain foods because their bodies lack the specific enzyme needed to break down that food.  For example, if you are lactose intolerant, you are missing the enzymelactase, which breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products.  The words “gluten intolerance” are sometimes used to describe Celiac disease. However, Celiac disease does involve the immune system and can cause serious complications if left unchecked.

What is the best treatment for food allergy?

Strict avoidance of the allergy-causing food is the only way to avoid a reaction. Reading ingredient labels for all foods is the key to maintaining control over the allergy. If a product doesn’t have a label, allergic individuals should not eat that food. If a label contains unfamiliar terms, shoppers must call the manufacturer and ask for a definition or avoid eating that food.

What are the common symptoms of a reaction?

Symptoms range from a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and the throat, difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, drop in blood pressure, and loss of consciousness to death. Symptoms typically appear within minutes to two hours after the person has eaten the food to which he or she is allergic.

What is the best treatment for a food allergy reaction?

Epinephrine, also called “adrenaline,” is the medication of choice for controlling a severe reaction, also called anaphylaxis. It is available by prescription as a self-injectable device (i.e., Auvi-Q® or EpiPen®).

Is there a cure for food allergies?

Currently, there are no medications that cure food allergies. Strict avoidance is the only way to prevent a reaction. Most people outgrow their food allergies, although peanuts, nuts, fish, and shellfish are often considered lifelong allergies. Some research is being done in this area and it looks promising.

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