Food Allergies

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What are food allergies?

The body develops allergies to food when the body mistakenly recognizes a food substance as harmful. The body’s immune system will begin to attack the food as an allergen, which triggers a chemical release of histamine. This histamine is what triggers the symptoms. Food intolerance and food allergies are often confused. They often have similar symptoms, but while food intolerance may cause discomfort, it will not trigger an immune response.

The signs and symptoms of food allergies can vary greatly depending on the person. Symptoms may range from mild to severe.

Mild symptoms can include:

  • Skin rash and/or hives
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Tingling of the tongue, lips, and/or throat
  • Persistent coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Severe symptoms can include:

  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, and/or throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Wheezing and/or shortness of breath (asthma)
  • A drop in blood pressure that might cause a person to feel faint, weak, or confused
  • Chest pain
  • Turning blue
  • Loss of consciousness

When an allergic reaction becomes severe, it is referred to as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can, potentially, be life-threatening. Several areas of the body may be affected, causing difficulty breathing. This requires immediate medical attention, and you should call 911. If you or someone in your family has symptoms of food allergies, it's important to note that food allergies can have an impact on the GI tract. You should partner with a gastrointestinal specialist to obtain treatment. Find an expert GI doctor near you by contacting GI Alliance.

What causes food allergies?

90% of all reactions to food occur from these eight common allergens, but a person could be allergic to any number of foods:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts – almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, pine nuts, chestnuts, filberts/hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, and walnuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish – shrimp, crab, crawfish, crawdads, crayfish, lobster, and prawns

Children who are allergic to milk, eggs, soy, and wheat may outgrow the allergy. Outgrowing a nut or seafood allergy is far less common. Infants who are breastfeeding may experience allergic reactions to the food ingested by the mother.

How are food allergies diagnosed?

In order to confirm a food allergy, your doctor may recommend additional testing which commonly includes:

  • Skin prick test (SPT): This test is commonly performed within a doctor’s office, and may provide results within about 30 minutes. A small amount of the food allergen is placed on the back or forearm. The doctor then gently pricks or scratches the skin surface to see if a reaction occurs.
  • Blood test, also called the radioallergosorbent test (RAST): Tests for the antibodies that trigger allergy symptoms
  • Food challenge: The patient is fed a small amount of the suspect food in steadily increased doses in order to test for a reaction. The test is done in a controlled medical environment to allow any reaction to be immediately treated.
  • Food elimination diet: A short-term (usually 2-4 weeks) period in which the suspect food is eliminated and possibly gradually reintroduced while symptoms are monitored.

How are food allergies treated and managed?

Treating a food allergy may involve avoiding the foods that contain the allergen causing the reaction. Unfortunately, there is currently not a cure for food allergies. Milder symptoms may be treated using:

  • Antihistamines
  • Oral steroids
  • Topical steroids
  • Inhalers
  • Injectors (EpiPen™)

You should speak with your doctor about the best treatment methods for you. Treatment may include a management plan to ensure you are safe in case of an emergency. A successful management plan may include:

  • Reading food labels carefully to avoid your allergen
  • Wearing a medical alert I.D.
  • Having medication available at all times
  • Taking medication as soon as a reaction occurs

You should discuss developing an emergency plan with your doctor.

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Gastrointestinal disorders and food allergies

Food allergies, over time, may lead to more serious gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. If you are concerned about the recurring symptoms you are experiencing, you should discuss these with your doctor. Gastroenterologists are specially trained to identify, prevent, and treat gastrointestinal disorders. You can find a local gastroenterologist through GI Alliance, the nation's largest physician-led network of GI specialists. To learn more about how food allergies can affect your GI tract and overall wellbeing, contact GI Alliance.

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