Food Allergies Explained

This month, food allergy awareness is highlighted nationally, so let’s take a moment to brush up on this increasingly prevalent and potentially fatal disease.

Food Allergies Fast Facts

  • 15 million Americans are affected, including 1 in 13 children.
  • The number is growing rapidly – between 1997 and 2011 there was a 50% increase.
  • Food allergies are much more common in the “developed” world. In “developing” countries, food allergies are rare.
  • The “Top 8” food allergens make up 90% of cases – peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish. But virtually any food can cause a reaction.1
  • A food allergy can develop at any age. Some food allergies can be outgrown (this is more common with milk, eggs, soy) while others tend to be lifelong (peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish).

Food Allergies Q&A

What are the symptoms?

  • Food allergies come on quickly – within a few minutes to an hour of consuming the food.
  • A reaction can be initially felt as a tingling in the mouth, tightness in the throat and difficulty breathing & swallowing. As the food is digested, gastrointestinal distress such as vomiting and diarrhea is possible. As the allergen particles make their way to the skin, hives and eczema are common. A person may also feel weak or dizzy.2
  • Anaphylaxis is an acute, potentially fatal reaction that affects the whole body. Symptoms can include all of the above plus low blood pressure, wheezing, confusion, a rapid pulse and swelling.

What should I do if I suspect I have an allergy?

If your reaction is acute, seek emergency help immediately (call 911). But even if you are experiencing some of the less severe symptoms shortly after eating, call your doctor or an allergist. They will work with you to diagnose the allergy, through testing.

There is no cure, but you can take precautions to prevent a reaction.

  • Read labels diligently.
  • If you are being served by someone else, ask twice. People unaffected by allergies are naturally not as tuned in as those at risk.
  • Beware of cross contamination. Sometimes an allergen isn’t listed as an ingredient, but traces of it exist due to shared equipment in the food factory.
  • Be prepared for unintended exposure, especially if the allergy is severe. Wear a medical bracelet, carry an epinephrine auto-injection device (“epipen”), and seek medical help immediately.3

What is the difference between an allergy and intolerance?

  • Food allergies come on quickly and occur consistently – every time the food is ingested, even if it is just a small amount. Food allergies can be life threatening.
  • Food intolerances come on gradually and may not happen every time the food is consumed or if it was only a small quantity. They are not life threatening. 4

Why are food allergies on the rise?

Evidence points to several factors including:

  1. The Hygiene Hypothesis. Increasingly, evidence is showing that our immune systems need exposure to a number and variety of germs in order to properly mature. In our ultra-clean environment, the immune system is not effectively stimulated and therefore, doesn’t fully develop. This immature immune system is more likely to react to allergens, including common foods.5
  2. The trend of waiting to introduce potential allergens. Peanuts are a good example. In light of the rapid rise of allergies over the last several decades, healthy authorities in the US, Canada and the UK have advised that children at high risk for developing a peanut allergy not be introduced to peanuts until age 3. This has been good in the sense that it prevents the risk of an acute reaction in young children.

However, many are starting to question this strategy. In countries where children are fed peanuts from infancy on, the rate of peanut allergy is low. A current study is underway to answer the question in a methodical way – is it better to expose high-risk children early on or is it better to wait?

Stay in communication with your doctor or pediatrician about your child’s risk factors and the current recommendations.