By Dr. Nina Radcliff
From sneezing, a dry cough, nausea, digestive problems to trouble swallowing, turning blue, a drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and more – food allergies can range greatly from mild to severe and be a potentially life-threatening medical condition.
Complicating matters, reactions can be unpredictable. You may live all your life with no food allergies and then after a meal, show symptoms you have never experienced before. And too, the first signs of a reaction can be mild, but symptoms can worsen quickly – or over time. What caused a mild reaction one time can lead to a severe reaction the next time. Add to this, the facts are that children have been found to communicate their symptoms differently than adults.
Research tells us that either you – or someone close to you – has food allergies, as it affects almost 15 million Americans (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) with one in every 16 children having a food allergy. Statistically, this averages to one or two students in every classroom. And over the last two decades, its prevalence amongst our children has skyrocketed—there has been an 18% increase between the years 1997-2007. While there are a number of theories and research is ongoing, no one is sure why food allergies are being diagnosed more frequently.
Food allergies send more Americans to emergency rooms each year than commonly known. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, it occurs every three minutes! It is important for all of us to understand food allergies – and that they can pose serious health challenges. Any suspected food allergies should always be evaluated, diagnosed and treated by a qualified medical professional.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Food Allergies
What is a food allergy?
When the body has a specific and reproducible immune response to certain foods–the result can be serious and potentially life-threatening. Our immune system is a complex and intricate force that fights off foreign invaders—germs and, too, cancerous cells—within our body. It serves to protect us.
However, in those with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly identifies the food as being harmful. It is as though the lines of communication got mixed up. When this happens, our body produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE) to that food. And the next time you consume that item, even the tiniest amount, the IgE antibody recognizes it and sets off a chain reaction that includes the release of histamines and other chemicals that go nuclear against the food. The result is breathing, heart, skin, and gastrointestinal symptoms.
Also, it is important to understand that food allergies differ from food intolerances, although they may share some mild, but uncomfortable symptoms with allergies that are not life-threatening, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. And, too, unlike food allergies, they often begin gradually, when you consume a large amount of the food item, or consume it frequently. Depending on the type of food intolerance you have, you may be able to tolerate a small amount of the food without issue. But, if you have a food allergy, even a miniscule amount can trigger a dangerous reaction. Thus, it is important to have your food allergy confirmed with a thorough evaluation by a qualified medical professional (your family physician may refer you to a specially trained allergist).
What are the symptoms of a food allergy? They can range from mild to severe; differ from person to person; occur within seconds or after hours; and change for a particular individual over time. Some mild reactions may involve tingling in the mouth, hives or an upset stomach.
Life threatening reactions include anaphylaxis, a condition marked by dangerous drops in blood pressure that can cause dizziness and loss of consciousness. And, too, throat swelling can make it difficult or impossible to breathe because air flow in and out of our lungs is limited or completely stopped. Anaphylaxis is a dangerous reaction and emergent recognition and treatment can mean the difference between life and death. Oftentimes, people do not realize they have a food allergy until they experience anaphylaxis. It is important for everyone to be familiar with the common signs and symptoms:
- Respiratory: Coughing, wheezing, throat tightness or itching, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing
- Gastrointestinal: Nausea, vomiting, pain in the abdominal area, diarrhea
- Skin or external: Swelling of lips, face, tongue; hives (red bumps), itchiness, redness
- Heart: Palpitations (racing heart), chest tightness, pale or blue color
- Brain: Dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness
If you suspect that someone is having an anaphylactic reaction, call 9-1-1 right away. It is better to be overly cautious and wrong, than sorry and have regrets. And, while waiting, if injectable epinephrine is available, inject it immediately–sooner rather than later. Some additional things you can do while waiting for medical assistance to arrive:
- If you suspect the person is going into shock, lie them flat and elevate their feet to help blood flow to the heart
- Avoid administering any oral medications whether liquid or capsule or placing a pillow under their head if the person is having difficulty breathing
Who is at risk of a food allergy?
Some risk factors include:
- Family history—you can have an increased risk if asthma, eczema, or hay fever runs in your family
- Age— While most food allergies start in childhood, it is important to understand they can develop at any time of life!! It isn’t clear why, but some adults develop an allergy to a food they used to eat with no problem. As well a child may outgrow a food allergy only to have it reappear in adulthood.
- Asthma—if you personally have asthma, you are more likely to have a food allergy. Additionally, those with both asthma and a food allergy are more likely to have more severe symptoms. And, too, having other allergies such as hay fever or eczema also increase your risk.
What are the most common food allergies?
Although any food can trigger an allergy, there are 8 common foods or food groups that account for 90% of serious allergic reactions in the United States. They include: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, fish, wheat, and shellfish. And too, someone allergic to a specific food may also potentially have a reaction to related foods.
How do you cure an allergy?
Currently, there is no cure for food allergies. Researchers are working steadfastly to gain greater understandings and develop life-saving treatments. However, at this time, the only way to prevent reactions is to completely avoid the food you are allergic to.
How do I manage a food allergy?
If you suspect a food allergy, see your medical doctor, who will take your family and medical history, decide which tests to perform (if any) and use this information to determine if a food allergy exists. Once diagnosed, there is a lot you can do to avoid a life-threatening reaction. Gaining understanding and wisdom is key along with taking steps to avoid accidental exposure, particularly when at school or eating out. Some tips from organizations and experts include:
- Always read labels (be a label detective). Look to see if the product was prepared with additives that you are allergic to, such as milk protein, soy, or by-products of wheat, or produced in a facility that also processes nuts. And, too, make sure to read the label every time—manufacturers often change their ingredients.
- Food preparation at home. Cross-contamination can occur more easily than you think with knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, pots, pans and cutting boards. Make sure that all dishes and utensils are washed in hot, soapy water in between uses. And, too, consider using two sets of cooking and eating utensils in the household—for those with and without allergies.
- Be wise when dining out. Inform your server, chef, or restaurant manager about your food allergy before placing your order. It is recommended to carry a “chef card” which is a printed note that specifies all ingredients you may be allergic to and request that all utensils be free from traces of that food (see www.foodallergy.org for more information on how to prepare one).
- Wear a medical ID bracelet. Doing so can alert bystanders who are not aware of your food allergy that you have one—it can be lifesaving in the event of anaphylaxis.
- Create an action plan. And, consider, doing a drill as well of the steps to take if you or your child has an anaphylactic reaction.
- Always carry your medication with you. Don’t leave home without it!
Knowing the facts and understanding how to manage food allergies in every place and stage of life –from home, schools, restaurants, take-out, college, the workplace to special events – is vital when setting strategies.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.