Food Allergies Food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein, confusing it to be a hostile invader. Ingestion of the offending food may trigger the sudden release of chemicals, including histamine, resulting in symptoms of an allergic reaction. The symptoms may be mild (rashes, hives, itching, swelling, etc. ) or severe (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, etc. ). A food allergy can be potentially fatal. It is estimated that approximately 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies.
Food allergies are more common among young children – one in 17 under the age of 3 has food allergies. Eight foods account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions. They are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. But a food allergy can occur with any type of food. A skin prick test or a blood test is commonly used to begin to determine if an allergy exists. A skin prick test is usually less expensive and can be done in the doctor’s office.
Positive skin prick tests or immunoassay test results will show that IgE is present in the body, but cannot alone predict that a reaction will occur if the patient were to eat a suspected allergy-causing food. The results of the tests are combined with other information, such as a history of symptoms and the result of a food challenge to determine whether a food allergy exists. 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 avoiding a reaction.
If a product doesn’t have a label, individuals with a food allergy should not eat that food. There is no cure for food allergies. Epinephrine, also called adrenaline, is the medication of choice for controlling a severe reaction. It is available by prescription as a self-injectable device such as Epipen. Symptoms may include one or more of the following: a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and the throat, difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, drop in blood pressure, loss of onsciousness, and even death. Symptoms typically appear within minutes to two hours after the person has eaten the food to which he or she is allergic. It is not known at this time whether food allergies can be prevented. However, there is research that shows that breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life may reduce the child’s chance of having allergies later in life. Also, avoiding the most common foods related to allergies for the first few years of solid food is also a method that is being researched.
Many doctors and parenting books suggest holding off on peanut butter, strawberries, and other foods that could provoke allergies until atleast the age of 2 or 3. Parents should become familiar with the early signs of allergic disease such as eczema, hives, repeated diarrhea and/or vomiting in reaction to formulas, wheezing, and talk to a doctor about those symptoms. At this time, no medication can be taken to prevent food allergies. Strict avoidance of the allergy-causing food is the only way to prevent a reaction. Medications are administered to control symptoms after a reaction occurs.
Food allergies can be very scary for the sufferer and their family, which is why patient teaching is extemely important. The allergy sufferer and their family should know how to read food labels to avoid the product in all processed foods, and know what to do in case of accidental ingestion, and have the correct medications on hand, as well as know how to use them properly. Until more research is available on the root causes of food allergies, the most important thing is making sure patients are knowledgeable and prepared.