What is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy is a condition in which the immune system incorrectly identifies a food protein as a threat and attempts to protect the body against it by releasing chemicals into the blood.  The release of these chemicals results in the symptoms of an allergic reaction.  Even a trace amount of an allergy causing food is enough to trigger an allergic reaction in some people.

Which Foods Cause Food Allergy?

A food allergy can develop from almost any food.  However, the 8 major allergens cause nearly 90 percent of all allergic reactions to food in the U.S.allergens.png image on bigy.com

How Many People are Affected by Food Allergies?

Approximately 12 million Americans (4%) suffer from food allergies, including more than 3 million children.  About 3.6 million Americans are allergic to peanuts and/or tree nuts, and about 7.2 million are allergic to fish and/or shellfish. An estimated 30,000 emergency room visits and 150-200 deaths a year result from food allergen reactions.  Most people outgrow their food allergies, although allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are often lifelong.

What are the Symptoms of Food Allergy?

An allergic reaction may begin with a tingling sensation, itching, or a metallic taste in the mouth. Other symptoms can include hives, a sensation of warmth, wheezing or other difficulty breathing, coughing, swelling of the mouth and throat area, vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, a drop in blood pressure, and loss of consciousness.  These symptoms can begin anywhere from minutes to two hours after exposure to the allergen.  Life threatening reactions may get worse over a period of several hours.  Some individuals may experiences a more severe reaction called anaphylaxis.

What is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a life threatening allergic reaction.  It is a condition which affects several different parts of the body which may include the skin: flushing, itching, or hives, the airway: swelling of the throat, difficulty talking or breathing, the intestines: nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; and the ability of the heart to pump blood; low blood pressure or unconsciousness.

Symptoms usually appear rapidly, sometimes within minutes of exposure to the allergen, and can be life threatening.  Immediate medical attention is necessary when anaphylaxis occurs.  Standard emergency room treatment often includes an injection of epinephrine to open up the airway and help reverse the reaction.

How can an Allergic Reaction be Prevented?

Currently, there is no medication that cures food allergies.  In many cases it does not take much of the food to cause a severe reaction. The only way for a person with a food allergy to keep from having a reaction is by strict avoidance of the food allergen. Despite taking precautions, people with food allergies may unknowingly be exposed to an allergen.

What is Cross-Contact?

Cross-contact occurs when one food comes into contact with another food and their proteins mix, resulting with each food containing small amounts of the other food, often invisible to us.  Such contact may be either direct (e.g., sprinkling walnuts on an apple pie) or indirect via hands or utensils.  The protein is the component of the food that causes the food allergy.  Trace amount of an allergic food is enough to cause an allergic reaction in some people.  Therefore, precautions must be taken to avoid cross-contact with foods a person is allergic to.

What Important Information Should I Know and Share with My Family and Friends?

Because food allergy can be life threatening, the allergy-producing food must be completely avoided.  If you, or someone else, are experiencing a severe food allergic reaction, call 911 immediately.  Most life-threatening allergic reactions to foods occur when eating away from the home.  It is important to explain your situation and needs clearly to your host or food server.  If necessary, ask to speak with the chef or manager.  Some foods have been reported to cause reactions when inhaled, as with the steam from poached fish or boiling crab pots.  It is very important to know about how cross-contact of foods can occur in a restaurant, bakery, or home in order to safeguard yourself.

Always look at the listings on labels to determine the presence of the eight major allergens.  All food containers must be labeled with the common name of the food/ingredient that they contain. Laws require that allergens be listed on food labels in easily understood language.  Since food and beverage manufacturers are continually making improvements, food-allergic persons should read the food label for every product purchased, each time it is purchased.