How to recognize and react to a food allergy in you or your children.
A food allergy is a malfunction in the immune system. It occurs when your immune system reacts to a component, usually a protein, found in a specific food as if it is something unhealthy. This can happen even if you have only a tiny amount of the food, or sometimes even if it is too close to you.
Globally, somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of people have food allergies. Rates of food allergies are on the rise; in the United States, the portion of children with food allergies increased from 3.4 percent in 1997 to 5.1 percent in 2011, and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports that about 4 percent of adults in the United States have food allergies as well.
Though you can be allergic to the same foods for your entire life, many children outgrow allergies as they get older. Adults can also develop allergies that were not present when they were younger.
Common food allergies
While any type of food can be an allergen, the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) warns that eight foods are responsible for about 90 percent of all food allergies.
These foods are eggs, peanuts, milk, tree nuts, soy, wheat, shellfish, and fish. In some parts of the world, sesame and mustard seeds are also common allergens that trigger strong reactions.
Many food allergies are related to non-food allergies. Someone with an allergy to ragweed, for example, may also react to melons and bananas because they pollinate at the same time and contain similar proteins. This is known as cross-reactivity.
Because food allergies can range from mild and uncomfortable to severe and life-threatening, it is important to be able to recognize the signs of an allergic reaction so you can seek medical help right away.
Common food allergy symptoms
Different food allergies often cause similar symptoms. These reactions usually affect the skin, digestive system, heart, and breathing.
Someone having an allergic reaction may develop hives or dry, red patches on their skin. They may vomit, have stomach cramps, develop diarrhea, or feel weak and dizzy. Some food allergy symptoms resemble those of non-food allergies, such as watery eyes or itchy, running nose. You may also notice swelling in your hands, face, and ears.
More severe food allergy symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, swelling of the tongue, tightness in the throat or chest, or a weak pulse.
In the most dangerous cases, a person in the middle of an allergic reaction may collapse or go into anaphylaxis, a dangerous reaction that sends the body into shock and can impair breathing. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
How your child may describe an allergic reaction
Adults can often tell when they are having an allergic reaction, but children will often describe their symptoms in unexpected ways because they do not know what is happening.
If your child has a food allergy, the child may describe a burning, itching, or thick feeling in his or her tongue or mouth after eating certain foods. Some children say that it feels as if something is stuck in their throat. Children may describe their lips or throats as tight and full, or say that there is a sensation like bugs in their mouth or ears.
You may also notice external signs, such as hives or swelling, or hear that your child’s voice has become slurred or squeaky. Infants may also become fussy or have irregular, liquid bowel movements.
How to respond to food allergy symptoms
You can often treat mild allergic symptoms, such as swelling, watery eyes, or itchy skin, with over-the-counter antihistamines. However, the ACAAI cautions that even someone who has experienced only mild symptoms in the past can suddenly have a more severe or even life-threatening reaction.
In the case of a severe allergic reaction, such as trouble breathing or symptoms of shock, it is important to seek medical help immediately. And if you or someone in your care experiences any sort of allergic reaction to food, no matter how mild, speak to a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
A doctor can advise you on how to remove the food you are allergic to from your diet. You may also be prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector for use in the case of anaphylaxis or other life-threatening symptoms.
December 09, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN