Food Allergies

Imagine what it would be like if eating a peanut butter sandwich or drinking a tall glass of milk left you vomiting, gasping for breath and furiously scratching a fresh crop of hives. For some people with food allergies, that’s reality.

A food allergy, or hypersensitivity, is an abnormal response to a food triggered by the immune system. While many people have gas, bloating or other unpleasant reactions to something they eat, this is not an allergic response. Such a reaction does not involve the immune system and is called “food intolerance.” Lactose (milk sugar) intolerance is an example of food intolerance, in which a person is able to handle small amounts of milk, yogurt or cheese. In a true food allergy, for instance to the protein in milk, there is no “safe” amount and your body cannot learn to adjust to the food.

Of all the individuals who have any type of food sensitivity, most have food intolerances. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately five million Americans, (5-8 percent of children and 1-2 percent of adults) have a true food allergy involving the immune system. Food intolerance reactions are generally localized, temporary and rarely life threatening, where as food allergy can cause life-threatening reactions.

What happens in the body during a food-allergic reaction?
The immune system mistakenly believes that a harmless substance, usually the protein in food, is harmful. In its attempt to protect the body, it produces specific antibodies to that food. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals in an attempt to protect the body. These chemicals trigger a flood of allergic symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system.

What are the common symptoms of a reaction?
Symptoms range from a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and the throat, to difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Symptoms typically appear within minutes to two hours after the person has eaten the food.

How might a child describe an allergic reaction?
Children have unique ways of describing their experiences and perceptions, including allergic reactions. Precious time is lost when adults do not immediately recognize that a reaction is occurring or don’t understand what the children might be telling them.

The following are examples of the words a child might use to describe a reaction. In addition, know that some children, especially very young ones, will put their hands in their mouths or pull or scratch at their tongues, in response to a reaction. Also, children’s voices may change (i.e., become hoarse or squeaky), and they may slur their words. If you suspect a child is having an allergic reaction, get medical help immediately.

  • This food is too spicy.
  • My tongue is hot (or burning).
  • It feels like something is poking my tongue.
  • My tongue (or mouth) is tingling (or burning).
  • My tongue (or mouth) itches.
  • My tongue feels like there is hair on it.
  • My mouth feels funny.
  • There’s a frog in my throat.
  • There’s something stuck in my throat.
  • My tongue feels full (or heavy).
  • My lips feel tight.
  • It feels like there are bugs in there (to describe itchy ears).
  • My throat feels thick.
  • It feels like a bump is on the back of my tongue (throat).

What is anaphylaxis?
A rare, severe but potentially fatal reaction is called anaphylactic shock. Breathing passages close up, blood pressure drops and the person could lose consciousness and even die. Symptoms usually appear rapidly, sometimes within minutes of exposure to the allergen, and can be life threatening. Immediate medical attention is necessary.

What foods trigger allergic reactions?
The eight most common food allergens – milk protein, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish, soy protein, peanuts and tree nuts – cause more than 90 percent of all food allergic reactions. Childhood allergies to a number of foods are outgrown, however the allergy to peanuts, nuts and fish are seldom outgrown.

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 and, if a product doesn’t have a label, allergic individuals should not eat it. If a label contains unfamiliar terms, call the manufacturer for information.

What should I do if I believe I have an adverse reaction to a certain food?
You should see a physician for a diagnosis. An allergist and dietitian can best help you manage diet issues with little sacrifice to nutrition or the pleasure of eating. Randomly taking food out of your diet can leave you with an unbalanced diet that can cause other health problems.

Is there a way to prevent food allergies?
The tendency to develop allergies may be inherited. If one parent has allergies a child has a 50 percent chance of being allergic. If both parents have allergies chances increase to 75 percent. Recommendations are:

  • Breastfeed your baby.
  • Introduce solid foods at an appropriate age, not before six months when a baby’s immature gastro-intestinal tract is sensitive to foreign proteins.
  • Introduce one food at a time in order to easily detect allergens.
  • Start with the least allergenic foods first (rice cereal before wheat), and avoid common allergens in the first year of life.

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