According to the Mayo Clinic, about 3% of adults have a food allergy. Food allergies are immune system reactions that occur when eating certain foods. Nuts and shellfish are the most common foods that trigger a reaction. An allergic reaction to food can cause a range of symptoms such as hives, swollen airways, or digestive problems. More serious reactions include anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening.
Common Food Allergy Symptoms
Allergic reactions from food typically happen within minutes of eating the food but can take up to two hours. Signs to be aware of include:
- Tingling or itching in the mouth
- Hives, itching, or eczema
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, and throat or other parts of the body
- Wheezing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
The most severe reaction, known as anaphylaxis, affects the whole body, causing life-threatening signs and symptoms, including:
- Constriction and tightening of the airways
- A swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in your throat that makes it difficult to breathe
- Shock with a severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or loss of consciousness
Food Allergies vs Food Intolerance
Your symptoms of an allergic reaction can vary between each food. A reaction to one type of food may be mild, while another could be severe. This does not mean that your food allergies are getting worse. It is simply due to the fact that allergic reactions to foods are very unpredictable.
In some cases, an individual may have a food intolerance instead of a food allergy. The two share symptoms so it can be easy to confuse them. However, food intolerance reactions are generally less serious and often only result in digestive problems. With food intolerance, individuals may even be able to eat a small amount of the food and have no problem at all.
Food allergies, on the other hand, cause the body to produce an antibody known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) when individuals consume certain foods. IgE then defends the body from the perceived threat, releasing histamine and other chemicals that trigger an allergic reaction. A food intolerance, in contrast, does not have any connection to the immune system.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Food Allergies
When a doctor performs a food allergy diagnosis, they may ask for a family history of allergies as well as a detailed history of your symptoms. They may also perform tests to determine what you’re allergic to. These tests can include:
- A skin prick test, in which a small amount of the suspected food allergen is placed on the skin.
- A blood test, which measures the immune system’s release of IgE in relation to a food.
- An elimination diet, which eliminates foods before adding them back one at a time to see if specific symptoms can be linked to specific foods.
- An oral food challenge, to determine how much of the food can be eaten before a reaction occurs.
The only way to stop any food allergy completely is to eliminate the food from your diet or seek treatment from an allergist who performs food desensitization. If you have exposure to the food and experience a mild reaction, such as hives or itching, an over-the-counter antihistamine may help. A more severe reaction may require an emergency injection of epinephrine and an emergency room visit.
At Columbia Allergy, we are experts in the treatment of food allergies. In fact, we were the first food allergy specialists to desensitize patients to certain types of nuts and shellfish. Our providers are here to help with a patient-focused approach. Contact us at any of our convenient locations in California, Oregon, Idaho, or Washington to learn more.
This is not medical advice. If you’re concerned that you may have allergies or asthma, please consult a medical professional.