A food allergy is a medical condition in which exposure to a food triggers a harmful immune response. The immune response, called an allergic reaction, occurs because the immune system attacks proteins in the food that are normally harmless. The proteins that trigger the reaction are called allergens. Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room.
There is a difference between a food allergy and intolerance. Food allergy reactions can sometimes be fatal. Food intolerance reactions are uncomfortable but cannot lead to death. Example, lactose intolerance is not the same thing as a milk allergy. Only about 3% of adults and 6-8% of children have a true food allergy. A true food allergy is an abnormal response to a food that is triggered by the immune system. Food intolerances are often mislabeled as allergies.
Most food allergies are discovered within the first two years of life and can persist throughout life. Cow’s milk and egg allergies may resolve with age, but nut and shellfish allergies generally do not resolve. Sometimes allergies can be hereditary. All symptoms of a food allergy occur within a few minutes to an hour of eating. A food allergy can initially be experienced as an itching in the mouth and difficulty swallowing and breathing. Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, and throat can also occur.
During digestion in the stomach and intestines, symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. Other symptoms include hives, eczema, asthma; anaphylactic reactions can occur and can be fatal if not treated.
Any food can cause a food allergy, but only eight foods are responsible for 90% of all food-induced allergic reactions in the United States. The major food allergens are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy.
Tree nuts include: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts. Peanuts are legumes and if someone is allergic to peanuts, they have a 30-60% chance of developing a tree nut allergy. Many people with a tree nut allergy choose to avoid all nuts to minimize the chances of cross-contamination. Other foods that may contain tree nuts include: cereals, crackers, cookies, candy, chocolate, energy bars, granola bars, trail mixes, muffins, donuts, flavored coffee, frozen desserts, marinades, popcorn, specialty cheese spreads.
There is no cure for food allergies, but they are managed by avoiding the suspected food. Strict food avoidance is the only way to avoid an allergic reaction. Remember to always check food labels before eating to ensure a food allergen is not present.