Allergic to Food? Food Allergies 101
Don’t let it keep you down.
For most folks, peanut butter is a delicious food that goes well with anything. For others, however, eating a little bit of peanut butter or a single peanut is a matter of life and death. A nut allergy is just one of many food allergies prevalent today. Chances are, you or someone you know is allergic to or intolerant of a specific type of food.
Over the last 15 years, food allergies have drastically increased. Scientists don’t know the exact reason for this, but they have their suspicions. What exactly is a food allergy, what’s the difference between an allergy and intolerance, and how can it be treated?
Putting You at Risk
The most common foods that cause allergic reactions in adults include peanuts, nuts, shellfish, eggs, and milk. For children, the most common offenders are peanuts, milk, soy, and eggs. But any food can cause an allergic reaction.
Fortunately, kids with food allergies have a chance to outgrow their allergies. On the downside, adults that develop food allergies are stuck with their allergies forever. The type of food you’re allergic to is usually one you eat a lot of, so food allergies differ around the world. As an example, rice is a common allergy in Japan, while codfish allergy is often seen in Scandinavia.
Why the increase in food allergies? Experts propose a few possibilities: the way food is now processed, the lack of bacteria in an overly clean environment, or a folate imbalance. Whatever the source, they’re always dangerous and frustrating.
A True Allergy?
Many people think they have an allergy when they’re just suffering a food intolerance. Allergies and intolerances often have similar symptoms, but a true allergy is an immune system response to a particular protein found in food.
When your body is exposed to the protein, it doesn’t recognize it as friendly and begins to fight it, resulting in an allergic response (hives, eczema, itching, vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, anaphylaxis, etc.) within an hour. Depending on the severity of your body’s reaction, an allergy can be minor or life threatening.
Food intolerance, on the other hand, occurs when the body isn’t able to properly digest a certain food. For example, those who are intolerant to milk lack the enzymes necessary to digest the lactose found in milk. Other items that cause intolerances include food dyes, monosodium glutamate, or sulfites.
Symptoms of a food intolerance include gastrointestinal problems such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea that occur within a few hours time of exposure. Frustrating and embarrassing as it may be, a food intolerance is not life threatening.
Through a variety of tests, your doctor can determine whether or not you have a true allergy or an intolerance.
Course of Treatment
The best way to avoid an allergic reaction to a particular food is to avoid the food. This means carefully reading ingredient labels. Some food proteins have a variety of names, and allergens are often found in foods you wouldn’t suspect, so if you’re allergic, do your homework and know what to look for!
While many food packages now list common food allergens included in the food, don’t depend on these lists. Read the entire ingredients list. Additionally, pay attention to things you put on your skin, as some food proteins can be found in unexpected places like makeup!
Individuals who are severely allergic or have an anaphylactic reaction must constantly be prepared for accidental exposure. If this is you, always wear a medical necklace or bracelet that alerts others of your condition and carry an adrenaline syringe in case of an emergency.
There’s no medication to prevent an allergic reaction, but medications are available to relieve minor allergy symptoms if you’re accidentally exposed. Allergy shots for food haven’t been shown effective, but new treatments are being developed, including oral immunotherapy (eating tiny portions of the food over time to develop intolerance) and allergy vaccines.
It’s estimated that someone heads to the emergency department every three minutes in response to a food allergy.