Having a food allergy can seem scary, at first. You’re given the diagnosis and think “great, but what can I eat?!” and “how do I avoid having a reaction?”
But you’re not alone. According to research by FARE, around “1 in every 13 children in the United States under age 18 have food allergies”, bringing the total amount of people affected in the US to around 15 million.
A food allergy is a reaction from your immune system to the proteins in certain foods. As your immune system is your defense against illness, with an allergy, it will see certain foods as a threat and attack to keep you safe.
What are the different types of food allergies?
Now here’s the science bit. There are 3 types of food allergy:
- IgE-mediated food allergy – the most common, occurs minutes after eating certain foods
- non-IgE-mediated food allergy – more difficult to diagnose as symptoms can take hours to appear
- mixed IgE and non-IgE-mediated food allergies – which is a mix of the two above
Though they sound complicated, the biggest difference between is in the antibody (the defense) your immune system produces a reaction. IgE-mediated food allergies produce an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE) and your symptoms will happen quickly. However, with non-IgE-mediated food allergies your immune system produces different cells and symptoms can take several hours to appear.
What are signs of allergies?
Knowledge is power when it comes to a food allergy. So now we’ve talked about the science behind the allergy, it’s good to know what you’re up against with symptoms. Whether you’re thinking about being tested, or have a fresh diagnosis, knowing what a food allergy is can be the one of the biggest steps.
The most common symptoms appear as:
- A tingling sensation, or itch in the mouth
- Your skin popping up in a raised itchy rash (a.k.a “hives”), itching or eczema
- Swelling of body parts such as your lips, around the eyes, tongue and throat
- Issues with breathing, nasal congestion or wheezing
- Abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness or fainting
Luckily, though they can be uncomfortable they’re rarely life-threatening. However, in some cases, a much more serious reaction can occur known as Anaphylaxis. Anaphylactic shock must be treated quickly. The symptoms are more severe and happen with speed, so keep an eye out for:
- Feeling faint
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Significantly increased heartbeat
- Clammy skin
- Severe distress and confusion
- Collapse or loss of consciousness
Speed is key here. Though a reaction this severe is rare it can be life-threatening. So, if you think someone is going into anaphylactic shock you must ring 911 right away.
What are the most common food allergies?
Any food can cause an allergic reaction. But some allergies are more common than others. In children, the most common foods are:
- Tree nuts (such as cashews and walnuts)
- Shellfish (like shrimp)
According to FARE, though most children grow out of allergies to milk and eggs, those allergic to nuts and fish tend to have it for life. The most common allergies in adults are with:
- Tree nuts
A lesser-known food allergy is pollen-food allergy syndrome when your body mistakes certain foods for pollen. This tends to come hand in hand with hay fever as some fruits, vegetables, and spices are made up of similar proteins to pollen.
What to do: Food Allergy Treatment
The first step? See your doctor. They will be able to test you and give a definite diagnosis.
Once you know what your food allergy is you can avoid the foods. But following these 5 steps can help ease the stress of a food allergy:
- Plan meals ahead of time – pre-pack some allergy-free snacks and meals if you know you’ll be eating out
- Tell people you have an allergy – the same goes for you or for a child, the more people in your social circle of family that know, the better
- Wear a medical alert bracelet – particularly if you, or your child, has had a serious reaction before
- Tell your server – when eating at restaurants make it explicitly clear that you have an allergy. Even if it makes you feel a little conscious, or uncomfortable, it is their job and it may save your life
- Ask for emergency epinephrine – if you’re high risk for a severe reaction talk to your doctor about having an epinephrine autoinjector (Adrenaclick, EpiPen), just in case.
Being prepared and full of knowledge is key to controlling your food allergy. So talk to your doctor, let people know you have an allergy and keep yourself safe.