We hear so much about food allergies today that it may be hard to believe that, of the millions of Americans affected, most of them are allergic to one of eight foods. But it’s true! Let’s take a deeper dive into food allergies and how to stay safe.
Odds are that you either have a food allergy yourself or know someone who does.
That’s because more than 32 million Americans have a food allergy of some sort. Both children and adults are affected, with as many as 5.6 million children under age 18 having an allergy.
You may wonder what a food allergy even is. Basically, an allergy occurs when you eat a certain food—the allergen—and your immune system reacts against it.
Read on as we offer some insight into food allergies, including the difference between an allergy and an intolerance, the most common food allergens and how to avoid reactions.
Is It a Food Allergy or an Intolerance?
When you have a food allergy, your reaction to eating an allergen, or coming into contact with one, will vary in intensity. In some cases, only mild symptoms occur, while in other cases, an allergic reaction can be life-threatening.
Symptoms caused by food allergies may include:
- GI issues, including vomiting or stomach cramps
- Respiratory issues, including shortness of breath, wheezing or repetitive cough
- Low blood pressure
- Trouble swallowing
- Swelling of the tongue and associated difficulty with breathing or talking
- Weak pulse
- Pale or blue skin color
In the most severe cases, food allergies can cause “anaphylaxis,” which is a life-threatening reaction that can send the body into shock and affect multiple areas of the body at once.
So, what’s the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance? Well, it depends on where your symptoms originate. While a food allergy is an immune system reaction, a food intolerance means the food didn’t agree with your stomach.
If you’re experiencing a food intolerance rather than an allergy, you can likely eat small amounts of a given food without any difficulty, but larger amounts will lead to unpleasant GI symptoms.
The Most Common Food Allergies
While you can develop food allergies to any food, most allergies result from eight allergens. The eight most common food allergies include:
- Cow’s milk and milk products. This is one of the most common allergies among children, and it’s usually outgrown during childhood. If a child is allergic to cow’s milk and breastfeeding, the mother will often need to eliminate milk and milk products from her diet until she’s finished nursing.
- Eggs. This is the second most common allergy among children. As with cow’s milk, the majority of children outgrow this allergy. Interestingly enough, you can be allergic to the yolk but not the white—and vice versa—since the proteins in each are slightly different.
- Tree nuts. This category encompasses nuts and seeds that come from trees, including Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, pistachios, pine nuts and walnuts. If you are allergic to any type of tree nut, it’s recommended to avoid all types, since cross-allergens are common.
- Peanuts. This category is a bit different from tree nuts since peanuts are a legume rather than a nut. Those with peanut allergies are also often allergic to tree nuts.
- Shellfish. This type of allergy is caused by your immune system attacking the proteins found in crustaceans, including shrimp, prawns, crayfish, lobster, squid and scallops.
- Wheat. This food allergy is sometimes confused with celiac disease, but it’s unrelated. Someone with a wheat allergy will experience an immune reaction to some type of protein found in wheat and can have severe, even life-threatening symptoms. Celiac disease, on the other hand, causes non-life-threatening symptoms due to a specific protein—gluten.
- Soy. This type of allergy is most commonly seen among children younger than 3 and typically goes away during childhood.
- Fish. Unlike the other food allergies we’ve discussed, a fish allergy can develop later in life. In fact, up to 40% of those with a fish allergy developed the allergy as an adult.
Navigating Life With Food Allergies
For all the food allergies identified above, the only way of treating the condition is through the total avoidance of the allergen. This can include steering clear of the food itself and any recipes or products that contain it.
Because of this, if you are diagnosed with a food allergy, your best defense is to pay careful attention to the foods you eat—and any foods you come in contact with.
Carefully read all package labels when purchasing foods from the grocery store, paying careful attention to the ingredient list. While foods should be labeled distinctly if they contain one of the eight most common allergens, reviewing the label is best practice.
If you’re eating outside the home, whether at a friend’s house or at a restaurant, be diligent about identifying the ingredients in your food. Proactively share your food allergies with anyone who will be cooking for you and check again about what’s involved in the food prep before eating.
Because cross-contamination is possible, it’s also important to ensure that your food is prepared away from your allergen, not coming into contact with dishes or utensils that came in contact with it.
Your doctor can walk you through other steps to take and provide you with a prescription for epinephrine in case of a severe reaction.
Believe you may have a food allergy? Your doctor can review your symptoms and help you determine next steps. Find a provider here to schedule an in-person or virtual appointment.