Food Allergy Basics
Did you know as many as 15 million Americans have a food allergy, including approximately 6 million children? People can be allergic to any food, but most people in the United States are allergic to milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.), fish, or shellfish.
Having a food allergy is different for each person. Some people are allergic to just one food, others to many. Some people experience mild reactions, and others could die without emergency medical help.
What Is Food Allergy?
Food allergy is like any other allergy, except that a food protein causes the allergy instead of pollen, pet hair, or even smoke. Allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless substance (in this case, a food) as harmful to the body and attacks it. When the substance enters the body, the immune system releases chemicals and histamines, which cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Click here to view an animation that shows what happens inside the body during an allergic reaction.
Symptoms of a Food-Allergic Reaction
A food-allergic reaction can affect the skin, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or the respiratory system. Symptoms can include:
- tingling sensation in the mouth;
- swelling of the tongue and the throat;
- difficulty breathing;
- abdominal cramps;
- drop in blood pressure;
- loss of consciousness.
What is Anaphylaxis?
In extreme cases, people with food allergy can die from a reaction if they don't get emergency medical help right away. This sort of a life-threatening reaction is called "anaphylaxis."
Anaphylaxis is a sudden, severe, potentially fatal, systemic allergic reaction that can involve various areas of the body (such as the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and cardiovascular system). Symptoms occur within minutes to two hours after contact with the allergy-causing substance but, in rare instances, may occur up to four hours later. Anaphylactic reactions can be mild to life threatening.
Avoiding Allergy-Causing Foods
There is no cure for food allergy, so people who are allergic to a food must avoid that food completely. Because it's impossible to guess what is in a food, someone with a food allergy must carefully read ingredient labels for everything they eat.
People with food allergy also have to beware of cross contact. Cross contact happens when two foods mix so that each food has a bit of protein in it from the other. Using one knife both for the jelly and the peanut butter, for instance, would cause the jelly to have peanut protein in it, and people with an allergy to peanuts might have a reaction if they ate the jelly.
Treatment of Reactions
People who have severe reactions to a food are usually prescribed self-injectable epinephrine. Auto-injectors of epinephrine are called EpiPen® or Twinject™. Quick use of this medicine can be lifesaving.
How Can I Help My Friend Who Has a Food Allergy?
Here are a few guidelines to help your friend stay safe.
- Learn what food or foods your friend must avoid.
- Ask about symptoms of a food allergy.
- Find out what medications your friend uses to treat a reaction and how you can help in the event of an allergic emergency.
- Remind your friend to read labels.
- Wash your hands after eating.
- Pressure your friend to try a food.
- Ignore the symptoms of a reaction.
- Exclude your friend because of food allergy.
- Allow others to make fun of your friend.