Over 50 million Americans currently suffer with some form of food allergy, be it a mild lactose intolerance to a serious seafood allergy. Approximately 4-6% of children and 4% of adults are affected to some extent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Allergies most commonly develop in infancy and young childhood, but can manifest any time, even in foods you have eaten for years.
Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system, misidentifying it as a danger and activating an immune response totally out of proportion to the perceived threat.
Allergies can be genetic, and there’s research indicating that the younger siblings of children with peanut allergies may be at much higher risk or even guaranteed to have a peanut allergy themselves, but so far, there are no hard and fast rules to predict who will have an allergy, and to what. Allergies may also become more severe as a person ages; something that caused minimal or no allergic response may eventually cause a severe reaction. Allergic responses can range from mild to very severe, even life threatening. The mildest responses include indigestion, stomach cramps or vomiting, and perhaps a rash, with a more severe version being hives, coughing or wheezing, swelling of the tongue, all the way up to potentially life threatening anaphylaxis, which can cause the throat to swell shut, blood pressure to drop dangerously, and can even cause heart failure.
Eight foods make up over 90% of all allergic reactions: milk, tree nuts, peanuts, eggs, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat, although anything can be an allergen. Seeds, particularly mustard and sesame, are also major allergens, particularly in some geographic regions.
The most effective treatment for allergies is to simply avoid the food in question. For children, the most common triggers are milk, eggs, and peanuts, and symptoms may manifest the very first time the child is exposed to these foods. For adults, peanuts and tree nuts, fish and shellfish, and oral allergies to fruit and vegetable pollen are the most common. However, for oral allergies, these foods can be consumed without issue if the food is heated to destroy the pollen that is causing an itchy mouth and swollen tongue, which are classic signs of oral allergy.
There are several tests allergists can use to determine if you allergic and to what specifically, by testing for certain food-specific antibodies in your blood. The first and most common is the skin prick test, in which the allergist administers a small amount of a liquid containing the potential allergen just under the skin to see if a wheal, or small bump, develops. This test is generally very accurate, although the testing process may be slightly uncomfortable, and provide results within about 20 minutes. Blood tests may also be administered to look for the antibodies, although these tests take about a week to process and are prone to being less accurate.
The most accurate test is the food challenge test, in which patients are fed small amounts of suspected trigger foods under strict medical supervision to determine if a reaction occurs. This test is especially useful if blood and skin tests were inconclusive. If you suspect you or a family member may have a food allergy, do your best to see an allergist right away. Reactions can escalate with each successive exposure to a trigger food, and it may become life threatening. Until then, avoid the food if possible and/or keep Benadryl on hand to help deal with any allergic reactions.
By Victor Brookshire