Contrary to popular belief, very few adults (1% to 2%) have true food allergies, or abnormal immune reactions to certain foods. It is common for adults to mistake a food intolerance for a food allergy. In contrast, children have immature intestinal tracts and are more prone to food allergies. Medical conditions which challenge the immune system, such as malnutrition or severe illness, also increase the likelihood of that a food allergy might develop.
Although food allergies occur infrequently, they are cause for serious concern. Adults or children with a severe food allergy can develop a life treatening reaction after eating only a trace of the offending food. While any food has the potential to provoke an allergic reaction, just 7 foods account for over 90% of all food allergies. Typically, the immune system reacts to the protein component of the food. The foods which cause the most allergies are: cow's milk, egg, peanuts, and tree nuts, wheat, soy and fish.
There is no 'cure' for a food allergy. The only protection is strict avoidance the offending food. This can be a challenge, but it is imperative for anyone with allergies. Sometimes, it is difficult to determine the exact food ingredient causing the problem. This is no time for guessing games. The only sure way to determine the source of food allergies is to have a thorough evaluation by a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of allergies.
The diagnosis of food allergy requires a careful history, physical exam, appropriate exclusion diet, and diagnostic tests to rule out other conditions. These tests may include direct allergy skin tests, blood tests, or elimination and challenge tests for suspected foods.
Identifying your specific food allergy arms you with the best insurance against allergic reactions. Once informed, you are able to screen food labels, inquire about ingredients and steer clear of foods that present problems. Without this knowledge, you could be carefully scrutinize every ingredient, perhaps avoiding foods unnecessarily, and still risk a life-threatening reaction to food.
Once you know which foods to avoid, the next step is to avoid them under all circumstances. Many of allergy-provoking foods, such as peanuts, eggs, milk and wheat, are present in foods you don't suspect. Consequently, you need to stay alert for hidden sources of these foods, speak up when dining out or eating foods prepared outside your home, and be prepared for unexpected exposures.
Preventing a food allergy reaction requires alertness, or diligence in screening for all potential sources of the offending foods. This can be quite a challenge as allergens are often hidden in unexpected food products. For example, soy, eggs and wheat are common 'fillers' used in meat products.
To complicate matters, allergy-prone individuals may also develop unexpected reactions to a whole family of related foods. A person with cow's milk allergy, for example, may react to all foods in the 'milk family', including goat's milk. True cross reactivity is rare but, if cross reactivity is suspected, talk with your physician or allergist. It is best to clarify the extent of allergy, since needlessly excluding foods or entire food groups from the diet can result in nutritional inadequacies.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in the US makes it easier for allergic individuals to readily identify risky foods or ingredients. This law stipulates that all ingredients in standardized foods be listed on the product label. For example, rather than list mayonnaise as an ingredient, the label must list all the ingredients (eggs, oil, lemon juice and salt) used to make mayonnaise. Many countries have similar laws, however, this may not be the case for all. Whenever a food label is missing, it is important to 'skip the risk'. Don't eat foods that do not disclose their ingredients.
Severely allergic individuals need to be particularly alert. Occasionally, there is an unsuspected source for the allergy trigger. For example, some people with peanut allergy develop severe allergic reactions by merely kissing someone who has recently eaten peanuts, or inhaling peanut dust at a baseball game. People with shellfish allergies have reacted to an unrelated food that came in contact with shellfish in a restaurant kitchen. Often, after a medical evaluation, the allergist can predict if you are likely to react to this type of exposure or to all foods within a food group.
Individuals whose allergies are severe need to speak up and make specific inquiries about the preparation of food and any presence of potentially dangerous food residues. Any foods or products that are suspect should be avoided until clarified. If labels are not available, write the manufacturer for information on the ingredients of the product. Utilizing public educational resources can also help you investigate the safety of products. Even with all this information, allergic reactions may still occur. Be prepared!
Protecting yourself from allergic reactions requires speaking up. It is important to be assertive on two fronts; both collecting information about foods and giving information to others are important.
Knowing the exact ingredients you need to avoid is critical. In general, labeled food products show a detailed list of the ingredients. Unfortunately, not all foods you might wish to eat will be labeled. This especially true when you go to restaurants or eat foods not prepared at home, such as school lunch, picnic or potluck items.
During these times, you will need to speak up. Ask specifically what ingredients were used in the food preparation. It usually helps to call restaurants ahead of time, early in the day, when chefs have time to thoroughly answer your inquiries. Try to select restaurants that prepare meals from scratch, rather than those that use prepackaged ingredients. Avoid processed foods or items that have sauces, condiments or garnishes. Unless you have a good, ongoing relationship with restaurant staff who accommodate individual needs, anyone with severe food allergies is usually better off preparing their own food for meals away from home.
No host or hostess wants to cause a problem for their guests. When you or your allergic child are invited to a meal or party at someone else's home, it is important to give your hosts information about specific food allergies in advance so they can better plan the menu. If the hosts have little or no experience with the specific food allergy, it is important to provide them with the basic information about foods, food preparation and food ingredients you or your child will need to avoid.
Even in the best of situations, it is still possible to have an allergic reaction. Always be prepared for this possibility. Let those around you know you have one or more specific food allergies. Educate anyone who needs to know about the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, and teach them what to do should a reaction occur when you are together.
Clearly, for people with food allergies, avoiding all food allergens all the time is a monumental task. Even the most cautious individuals are at risk of unexpected exposures. Being prepared for these times is crucial. It is important that, should a reaction occur, you or your allergic child receive prompt treatment. Anaphylaxis, the most severe allergic reaction, can result in life-threatening symptoms in as few as 5 minutes after eating the offending food. Always, be prepared!
Preparing For Allergic Reactions
- Recognize the signs of severe reactions such as: difficulty breathing, swelling of the mouth and throat, difficulty breathing dizziness and possibly loss of consciousness.
- Always were a Medic-Alert bracelet that clearly lists your allergies, symptoms and guidelines for emergency treatment.
- Let other know about your allergies, the symptoms of a reaction and the importance of immediate medical treatment.
- Be prepared to treat yourself by carrying a self-administered epinephrine kit. Childcare providers or school teachers should have the necessary instructions, permission documents and an epinephrine kit to promptly treat any child with allergies in their care.