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Food Allergies

As spring approaches, cookouts with family and friends begin to wrap up for the year. Food allergies begin to rise because a wide variety of foods including sweets and baked goods become much more commonplace. Unfortunately, the occurrence of adverse reactions to food also becomes more common during this time of year. Adverse reactions to foods are not uncommon and affect up to 8% of children and nearly 5% of adults. Recent data would suggest that the prevalence of food allergy is on the rise; particularly in children.

While there are a variety of different types of adverse reactions to foods from Celiac disease (an autoimmune condition) to lactose intolerance, food allergy refers to a very specific immune response that reproducibly occurs upon repeated exposure to a given food. Because of the nature of this very specific immune response, it may not take very much food allergen exposure to provoke a severe, life-threatening response. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to food include:

  • Hives or red, itchy skin
  • Stuffy or itchy nose, sneezing or itchy, teary eyes
  • Vomiting, stomach cramps or diarrhea
  • Angioedema or swelling

In some cases, food allergies can cause a severe reaction called anaphylaxis. Signs of this reaction include:

  • Hoarseness, throat tightness or a lump in the throat
  • Wheezing, chest tightness or trouble breathing
  • Tingling in the hands, feet, lips or scalp

If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately.

Currently, no cure for food allergies exists and there are no medicines to prevent allergic reactions to food. The mainstay of treatment is strict avoidance. There is a role for auto injectable epinephrine and there may be a role for antihistamines in the management of allergic reactions to food. Newer research, however, highlights the fact that antihistamines DO NOT prevent a reaction from becoming anaphylactic/life-threatening and, in fact, may delay the administration of life-saving epinephrine. It is essential that individuals with food allergy obtain specific instructions from their allergist/physician on how and when to treat reactions to food. Current research is showing promise with the use of oral, sublingual and epicutaneous immunotherapy in the management of food allergy, however, to date, there are no FDA-approved treatments using these modalities.

Food allergy and food intolerance can often present with similar symptoms. Studies have shown that many suspected food allergies are actually caused by other conditions including food intolerance. However, allergic reactions to food can be life-threatening and therefore should always be considered a potential medical emergency. Proper diagnosis of food allergies is extremely important. Therefore, it is essential for people with a known or suspected food allergy to be evaluated by a board certified allergist, specifically trained in managing these often complex and potentially life-threatening conditions.

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