Food allergies affect more than 50 million Americans. About 4% of adults and up to 6% of children have food allergies. “Food allergies tend to run in families,” said Dr. Kevin Keller, a Marshfield Clinic Health System allergy and immunology specialist. “If you have other allergic conditions such as asthma, atopic dermatitis/eczema or nasal/ocular allergies, you are more likely to also have food allergies.” Common foods to be allergic to include milk, egg, wheat, peanut, tree nut, soy, fish and shellfish. Children will often outgrow their food allergies as they get older, especially allergies to cow’s milk, egg, soy and wheat.
Food allergy symptoms
Food allergy symptoms typically occur within two hours of ingesting the offending food. Symptoms can range from mild to severe or life threatening. Common symptoms include:
- Hives/swelling (including tongue and throat, resulting in difficulty breathing)
- Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Difficulty swallowing
- Significant sneezing, nasal congestion and drainage
- Decrease in blood pressure resulting in lightheadedness and possible loss of consciousness
- Wheezing, chest tightness, problems breathing
Food allergy testing and treatment options
Diagnosing food allergies involves obtaining a detailed history, which includes the specific food, amount ingested, timing of onset of symptoms following ingestion and subsequent symptoms, along with allergy testing. This can be performed by either skin prick testing or through blood work. “Realize, however, that a positive test alone does not confirm a food allergy,” Dr. Keller said. “Diagnosis may also include oral food challenges performed in a clinic setting.”
We have no cure for food allergies. Treating food allergies usually involves strictly avoiding the food in the diet. Reading food labels is important to prevent accidental ingestions. It is also necessary to have a food allergy action plan available in the event of accidental ingestion. This includes keeping injectable epinephrine available and knowing when and how to use it properly. Seek emergency medical care immediately after using injectable epinephrine. Antihistamines can also provide symptom improvement but should not take the place of injectable epinephrine.