You most likely know at least one person who has a food allergy, or may have one yourself! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 4-6% of children and 4% of adults have a food allergy. This condition is the result of the immune system having a reaction to a specific ingredient you have ingested. Our immune system works to maintain health by protecting the body from various bacteria, fungi, viruses, toxins etc.
A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakes a particular food or substance in the food as harmful. Identifying the substance as a threat, activates the immune system’s protective response. This includes releasing antibodies to neutralize the substance. Because of this, whenever you consume that same substance, the antibodies detect it and release chemicals (like histamine) into your bloodstream. This overreaction causes the symptoms we associate with allergies.
Common Allergies & Symptoms
Anyone can experience food allergies; they are more common in children whose immune systems typically outgrow them as they develop. Though any food can cause an allergy, there are eight types of foods that account for 90% of all allergic reactions: eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. Reactions range from mild to severe and can be life threatening. It is important to know that even the smallest amount consumed can cause an allergic reaction which usually occurs within two hours of ingesting but often begins within minutes. Common symptoms include the following:
- Tingling and/or itchy mouth or throat
- Vomiting and/or stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea
- Hives, itchiness, eczema
- Wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath
- Tongue swelling making it difficult to breathe or talk
- Dizziness, fainting
The most severe and dangerous symptom is referred to anaphylaxis which is a narrowing of the airways caused by swelling. This restricts airflow and can send the body into shock. Blood pressure can drop substantially and one can lose consciousness requiring emergency treatment.
Testing & Diagnosis
Food allergies can impact your skin, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal tract, and respiratory system. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see a doctor and identify any potential allergens. Testing and diagnosing food allergies generally consist of:
- Medical Intake: similar to most medical appointments, your healthcare provider will collect your genetic and medical history. You will likely describe your symptoms with as much detail as you can, types of food you eat, any patterns that you recognize etc. After this information has been established, the doctor can order different types of tests to see if you have developed certain antibodies related to specific foods.
- Skin Test: involves pricking your skin and inserting a small amount of a specific food allergen under your skin (typically on the arm or back). If there is a reaction that is usually in the form of a bump (like a mosquito bite), then you are allergic to that specific substance. Skin prick tests provide results pretty quickly, it only takes up to 20 minutes.
- Blood Test: which is another test that people take to determine allergies, involves extracting blood and testing to determine if certain antibodies are present in your blood system. Having to go to a lab to be evaluated, results can take about one week.
- Ingesting Foods Test: if results from both skin and blood tests are inconclusive, doctors may work with you to ingest small amounts of potential trigger foods and observe for reactions. Because you could possibly have a severe reaction, this method should be done carefully and with medical supervision.
These methods of testing identify specific sources of your food allergies. Blood tests actually show you (through percentages) the specific degree (or severity) of your intolerance.
Managing Food Allergies
There are no cures for food allergies so it is up to you to protect your health! The best way to manage your allergy is to completely eliminate your specific trigger foods. Though this seems simple enough it can be difficult because of how food is processed. Here are a few tips:
- always read ingredient labels
- avoid products with labels that may read “might contain”, “made using shared equipment” etc. as it is unclear what this means (and there are no laws regulating the use of this type of labeling)
- labeling and the names of some ingredients can be complicated, look ingredients up if you are ever unsure!
If you are struggling with food allergies, contact us today. We provide allergy testing in our Allergy Clinic and we’re here to help.