What are Food Allergies?
A food allergy is an adverse health effect arising from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food. The body’s immune system identifies a particular substance in food—usually a protein—as harmful and mounts a defense against it. This response can range from mild to severe and, in some cases, may be life-threatening.
What are the Most Common Food Allergies?
The most common food allergies, often referred to as the “Big Eight,” account for the majority of allergic reactions:
- Tree Nuts
These allergies can develop at any age but are most common in children. While some food allergies can be outgrown, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are often lifelong conditions.
What Causes Food Allergies?
Food allergies are caused by the immune system mistakenly identifying a harmless food protein as a threat, leading to the production of antibodies known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE). The next time the individual eats even a small amount of the food, IgE antibodies sense it and signal the immune system to release histamine and other chemicals, causing allergy symptoms.
What is the Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance?
The distinction between food allergy and food intolerance is significant, mainly because of the difference in their mechanisms and the severity of the symptoms:
Food Allergy: This is an immune system response. It occurs when the body’s immune system identifies a certain food as harmful and triggers a protective response. Symptoms can be severe and potentially life-threatening, such as anaphylaxis.
Food Intolerance: This is a non-immune system response and tends to be less serious. It occurs when the digestive system cannot properly break down a certain food, often due to a lack of specific enzymes. Symptoms are generally limited to digestive problems, such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea, and do not involve the immune system.
What are Food Allergy Symptoms?
Symptoms of food allergies can vary from person to person and can include:
- Skin reactions: Hives, itching, or eczema.
- Gastrointestinal symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pains.
- Respiratory symptoms: Wheezing, coughing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing.
- Anaphylaxis: A severe, potentially life-threatening reaction that can impair breathing, cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure, and affect heart rate.
How are Food Allergies Diagnosed?
Diagnosing food allergies typically involves a combination of a detailed medical history, dietary review, and specific tests. Allergists often begin with a thorough history to identify potential food triggers linked to allergic reactions. Skin prick tests or blood tests may be conducted to detect the presence of IgE antibodies against particular foods. Sometimes, an oral food challenge, which must be performed in a medically supervised setting due to the risk of severe reactions, is used to confirm the allergy. This approach helps pinpoint the exact cause of allergic responses and guide effective management plans.
What are the Treatment Options for Food Allergies?
Treatment for food allergies may involve:
- Avoidance: Strictly avoiding allergenic foods.
- Emergency Medications: Use medication like epinephrine for severe reactions.
- Antihistamines: For milder allergy symptoms.
- Allergen immunotherapy: This treatment can sometimes help desensitize the immune system to specific allergens.
- Dietary management: Working with a dietitian to maintain a balanced diet while avoiding allergens.
- Education and planning: Understanding how to read food labels, recognizing symptoms, and having an action plan in case of accidental exposure.
Contact Northern Valley Allergy Asthma & Sinus
By understanding food allergies and working with our skilled staff to develop an appropriate treatment plan, you can better manage your symptoms (or avoid them altogether) and lead an active, normal life. If you have asthma, sinus issues, or other allergies, contact Northern Valley Allergy today to make an appointment.