Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food triggered by your body's immune system. Allergic reactions to food can sometimes cause serious illness and death. Tree nuts and peanuts are the leading causes of deadly allergic reactions called anaphylaxis.
In adults, the foods that most often trigger allergic reactions include :
- Fish and shellfish, such as shrimp, lobster and crab
- Tree nuts, such as walnuts
Problem foods for children are eggs, milk (especially in infants and young children) and peanuts.
Sometimes a reaction to food is not an allergy. It is often a reaction called "food intolerance". Your immune system does not cause the symptoms of food intolerance. However, these symptoms can look and feel like those of a food allergy.
Normally, your body's immune system defends against potentially harmful substances, such as bacteria, viruses, and toxins. In some people, an immune response is triggered by a substance that is generally harmless, such as a specific food.
The cause of food allergies is related to your body making a type of allergy-producing substance called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to a particular food.
Although many people have a food intolerance, food allergies are less common. In a true food allergy, the immune system produces antibodies and histamine in response to the specific food.
Any food can cause an allergic reaction, but a few foods are the main culprits. In children,
the most common food allergies are to:
- Shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster, snails, clams)
- Tree nuts
A food allergy frequently starts in childhood, but it can begin at any age. Fortunately, many children will outgrow their allergy to milk, egg, wheat, and soy by the time they are 5 years old if they avoid the offending foods when they are young. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish tend to be lifelong.
In older children and adults,
The most common food allergies are:
- Tree nuts
Food additives -- such as dyes, thickeners, and preservatives – may rarely cause an allergic or intolerance reaction.
Exams and Tests
Generally a food allergy is identified by signs and symptoms. Medical professionals are trained to recognize hives, swelling patterns, rashes, and other symptoms associated with allergic reactions.
You will be asked questions about your medical history and possible triggers of the reaction.
Blood tests and other tests are needed only under very unusual circumstances, such as anaphylaxis.
Some people can pinpoint which food caused the allergic reaction, especially if the reaction occurs within minutes of consuming a particular food. Many others will need to see an allergist for special testing to determine the exact food that is responsible.
Symptoms usually begin immediately, within 2 hours after eating. Rarely, the symptoms may begin hours after eating the offending food.
If you develop symptoms shortly after eating a specific food, you may have a food allergy. Key symptoms include hives, hoarse voice, and wheezing.
Other symptoms that may occur include:
- Abdominal pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Itching of the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, or any area
- Light-headedness or fainting
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Swelling (angioedema), especially of the eyelids, face, lips, and tongue
- Shortness of breath
- Stomach cramps
Symptoms of oral allergy syndrome:
- Itchy lips, tongue, and throat
- Swollen lips (sometimes)
Food Allergy Treatment
After getting advice from your health care provider, some mild allergic reactions may be treated at home. Any worsening of symptoms requires medical attention.
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