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Food Allergies Made Simple

Updated on November 2, 2011

Food allergies are scary, no matter how old you are. Food allergies are also difficult to understand. Over the past 10 years, the diagnosis of food allergies seems to have skyrocketed. Schools are seeing an increased number of children with severe reactions to the top 8 allergens. Parents, caregivers and doctors struggle to understand the massive increase in severe allergic reactions to foods.

Although food mediated reactions are nothing new, and diagnostic techniques have improved, there is no question that the incidence of food allergies themselves is increasing. There are several theories about why food allergies are on the rise, including vaccines, genetic engineering and even the cleanliness theory. The truth in the matter is that we just don't know exactly why so many people, especially children, are reacting to foods.

As a society we are still learning about food allergies and what they mean. The term food allergy brings to mind different images for different individuals. It can mean anything from a fit of sneezing to full blown anaphylactic shock. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis network has worked hard to convince our society to take food allergy seriously. As the incidence of food allergies increase, the chance of coming into contact with someone who has a severe allergy does too. Which means that it's important to understand what happens during an allergic reaction.

What Does Happen During an Allergic Reaction?

Many people think allergies mean that the immune system isn't strong enough. Although this concept seems to make sense, allergies are actually a signal that the immune system is working so well it's doing overtime.

Think of your immune system as a well trained army. If the brain identifies an incoming protein as a potential danger, it wants to attack and eradicate it. Usually, it launches an attack against germs that really don't belong in your body. Sometimes, you don't notice the symptoms. Sometimes, they show up like a cold or flu. Once in awhile, the immune system will identify a normal protein as an invader. The ensuing reaction is called an 'allergy'.

When a person has food allergies, the immune system identifies an incoming food particle as an intruder. It quickly creates Immunoglobin E, or IgE cells, which are antibodies designed to recognize the intruders. These IgE antibodies attach to the mast cells that are naturally found in places like your digestive tract and sinuses. It's like setting up a guard in the most likely places for an ambush. The allergic individual won't notice anything the first time they are exposed to an allergen. The first exposure is when the body's immune system sends out the APB. "This is what a danger looks like." This message is sent with the IgE antibodies to the mast cells. The process is done stealthily, so the individual has no idea that they are about to become the setting for an internal warground.

No, the person with food allergies notices something is wrong sometime after the first exposure. After each subsequent exposure, the IgE antibodies are monitoring incoming proteins. They recognize the allergen and then work with the mast cells to release chemicals designed to attack the perceived threat and quickly flush them from the body. The ensuing symptoms experienced by the individual are an unfortunate side effect.

The process is actually pretty impressive. Unless you're the one experiencing or witnessing the process. Then, it's downright scary.

What Are the Most Common Allergens?

The most common food allergies are Dairy, Soy, Egg, Wheat, Tree nuts, Peanuts, Shell fish and fish (fin fish). However, any food is a potential allergen. The top 8 foods listed above are the ones the government has identified as responsible for 90% of potentially anaphylactic reactions. That means 10% of serious reactions to food are to foods not on the top 8.

Some other common food allergies includes sesame, citrus, corn, and foods related to latex like bananas and avocado. There are a multitude of other food intolerances, as well. An intolerance is an unpleasant reaction to food that is not considered particular dangerous to the medical community. Symptoms are often similar to food allergy symptoms, but an intolerance is caused by a different mechanism than traditional allergies.

What Are the Symptoms of a Food Allergy?

Of course, what people with food allergies really care about isn't what's going on inside their body. What we really want to know, and explain to our kids, is how it feels and what we can expect during an allergic reaction.

The traditional symptoms of a food allergy include, but are not limited to,

  • Itching: there may be a tickling, itching, or burning sensation in the mouth or ears and throat. The skin may feel itchy, as if it were on fire. Frequently, skin irritation is accompanied by an itchy rash called "hives".
  • Swelling: Also called edema, swelling can occur anywhere in the body. It is most commonly recognized as a specific reaction when it occurs in the face, around the eyes or mouth, or when the tongue swells and causes discomfort.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms: any stomach symptoms or indigestion can also be an allergic reaction. The body wants to flush the perceived toxin out. Emptying the stomach through vomiting or diarrhea is an efficient way to do that.
  • Breathing: Severe allergic reactions affect breathing. If wheezing or shortness of breath occur, you need to see a dr immediately.
  • Blood pressure: Allergic reactions can affect blood pressure. Although you don't 'feel' low blood pressure, the symptoms caused include dizziness, lightheadedness and fainting. This also requires prompt medical attention.

The most common symptoms of food allergy are hives and gastrointestinal reactions. How you treat your own personal symptoms is up to you and your doctor, but if more than one body system is involved the reaction is diagnosed as anaphylactic. This simply means it is more likely to lead to shock. Anaphylactic shock is a condition that causes a drastic drop in blood pressure. Anaphylactic shock is a medical emergency that can become fatal if not treated promptly.

What do I do If I Have an Allergic Reaction?

If you have a food allergy, you should always have a plan of action. This action plan should be posted at your school or work place, and other adults in charge need to be aware of it. Your doctor can help you create a plan of action.

An Allergy Action plan reminds you what symptoms you might experience during an allergic reaction and which ones require which course of action. For instance, simple hives (which don't feel simple) might be treated with some lotion and an antihistamine. Stomach issues may be treated with an antihistamine as well as some sort of stomach remedy. Breathing issues generally require an epi pen and/or a trip to the hospital.

Oddly, some people experiencing an allergic reaction don't think about seeking medical attention. This may be because they go into a sort of shock or because they are embarrassed and think they can handle it on their own. Since allergies can get out of hand in a hurry, it's important to make sure that there is a second adult who knows your action plan available. In fact, a good action plan might have "Notify Emergency Contact" as your first step.

Regardless of what you and your doctor decide are necessary in that allergy action plan, you should always be prepared just in case.

  • Wear a medic alert bracelet. It doesn't have to be Medic Alert official, although Medic Alert is the best way to have all your info quickly accessed by emergency personnel. They'll make sure your loved ones and any medical personnel who are familiar with your unique needs are contacted immediately as well. If you don't have or want a medic alert account, at least get a bracelet or necklace that's labeled with your allergies and whether or not you carry an epi pen. If you're having trouble breathing, that's the easiest way to communicate your needs to the people around you.
  • Label your emergency contacts. If you carry a cell phone, put your spouse or significant other and/or parent's contact information into your phone. If your phone does not have a setting for "emergency contacts" then label them "ICE" which stands for "In Case of Emergency". You should also keep a list of emergency contact numbers near your photo ID just in case your phone runs out of batteries or is lost during an emergency.
  • Keep your medicine available. It may be a pain to carry an epi pen around, but if you need it even once in the next 5 years, it will be worth it. There are epi pen cases available that let you keep it strapped to your waist in a subtle manner. The same is true for other medications. Keep them up to date, too. Expired antihistamines aren't going to do much good.
  • Stay Calm. This one probably should go first, as it is the most important. It's last so you'll remember it. If you panic, everyone else will, too. So take as deep a breath as you can manage, and follow your action plan. It's there for a reason.

What do I do If I See Someone Having An Allergic Reaction?

If someone is having an allergic reaction, they need support. If you know the person, you probably have some idea of what's going on and how to help. But in a restaurant or on the city bus, you can still be helpful. Ask if there is anything you can do. Offer to make a pone call. Most cell phones now contain a designation for emergency contacts. You can notify the emergency contacts and ask for advice. If they need you to find their epi pen, look for a cylindrical case in their purse or backpack. Some people carry it strapped in a fanny pack style bag and should be able to access it themselves.

If the person is not able to communicate their needs, don't hesitate to dial 911. Check for a bracelet or necklace explaining their needs. If it says they carry an epi pen, look for that and follow the directions on the side. Epi pens are designed to be administered right through clothing, just keep your thumb off the back side to avoid stabbing yourself with a second dosage.

Food allergies are not something to brush aside. While they are becoming more and more common, and usually are not fatal, the fact that they can quickly become life threatening means they need to be taken seriously. If a child states they have food allergies and feel ill, their parent or caregiver needs to be notified even if the symptoms seem relatively mild. The parent can make the decision as to how severe the reaction is and whether it needs medical attention immediately.

Can We Prevent Food Allergies?

Since we still don't know exactly what causes food allergies, we can't prevent them. If a person is predisposed to developing allergies, even if they avoid the top 8 they may still develop a reaction to spinach. Or beef. Or cantaloupe.

We do know that repeated exposure plays a part in the development of allergies, so it stands to reason that a varied diet reduces your risk of developing a reaction to any one food. If there is time for your immune system to calm down and "forget" the necessary antibodies to attack those 'dangerous' food cells, then you're less likely to develop symptoms. It's not definitive protection. But on the other hand, a varied diet will also expose one to a multitude of vitamins and minerals that are only found in certain fruits and vegetables. Which also will help to create a healthy body and healthy immune system.

Some doctors also recommend that families with a strong history of food allergy avoid introducing the top 8 during a child's first year. They may also recommend avoiding all sea food, peanuts and all tree nuts during pregnancy. These recommendations vary between providers, and you'll have to decide on your own what works best for your family. While avoiding potential allergens seems like the most direct way to prevent them, it's important not to get carried away. Once a food is identified as a problem, it needs to be eliminated. But if it seems to work well for your family, it's more important to ensure that your diet is varied than it is to avoid any certain food product.

You can't prevent food allergies. And you can't cure food allergies. But you can live with them. Read labels, avoid known allergens and create an action plan in case of a reaction. Knowing what happens and how to deal with it is the most important part of taking control of allergies. Live well, and reaction free.


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