Food allergies are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 percent of adults and more than 4 percent of children in the United States have a food allergy. Food allergies are more common among infants and young children, but they can occur at any age. Surprisingly, a food allergy can sometimes affect individuals who have consumed a particular food for years without any prior symptoms. Reactions to food allergies can be life threatening, and at this time, there is no cure.
The body has a built in system – the immune system – to protect itself from infections and disease. Food allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to a food protein — an allergen. The only way to prevent a food allergy is to strictly avoid the food allergen. Symptoms of a reaction vary in severity, can occur simultaneously on different parts of the body and can change over time. Most importantly, symptoms can be unpredictable. Mild symptoms of a food allergy may include hives, rash, vomiting, stomach cramps or coughing. More severe symptoms may include difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue, weak pulse or loss of consciousness. Anaphylaxis is the most severe reaction and is potentially life threatening.
Anaphylaxis can occur within minutes of exposure to a food allergen and is characterized by impaired breathing and a sudden drop in blood pressure. Anaphylaxis can be fatal and requires prompt medical treatment with an injection of epinephrine. If you are around someone who is experiencing anaphylaxis, you need to call 911 immediately. Individuals with food allergies are encouraged to speak to their medical provider about what to do in the event of an emergency.
“All food allergies have one thing in common — they can be life-threatening. Always take food allergies seriously,” says NARMC Clinical Dietitian Lynetta Smith, MS RD LD.
If you suspect you or a loved one has a food allergy, contact your medical provider. You may be asked to provide information about your medical history, symptoms and dietary intake. Once a food allergy is diagnosed, the most effective treatment is to avoid the food. Some food allergies are more common than others. Food allergies to milk, eggs and peanuts are more common among children. In adults, food allergies to fruit and vegetable pollen, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are common.
Food allergies are not the same thing as food intolerance because food intolerance does NOT involve the immune system. Symptoms of food intolerance often involve digestive system distress after eating dairy foods, grain products and gassy foods like beans and cabbage. That is why it is important to seek medical care and have your food allergy confirmed by a physician or allergist.
Sometimes it is difficult to avoid food allergens. Here are some tips you can follow to reduce your risk of a reaction:
Always read food labels
Contact the food manufacturer if you need more information
Educate your family and others who are involved in preparing food for you
Ask questions about food preparation when you go out to eat
Seek care from a registered dietitian to help you ensure your diet has adequate nutrients while eliminating the food allergen
“Your nutrition does not have to suffer because of food allergies. A registered dietitian can teach you how to read food labels, substitute ingredients, and prepare meals that are safe and nutritious,” Smith adds.