Why does it seem everyone has a food allergy these days? What are the best treatments? How can I help my child avoid certain foods? Parents have a lot of questions when it comes to food allergies. It can be tough to figure out the best ways to diagnose and treat allergies while adjusting to a new lifestyle free of items like peanuts, eggs or wheat.
Dr. Jeffrey J. Dietrich, a board-certified allergist at Charleston Allergy & Asthma, tackles the top 10 food allergy questions.
1. What type of tests are done to determine food allergies?
The most reliable test is a skin test. Other options are a blood test or an oral food challenge, in which the patient gradually eats a particular food to see whether there’s a reaction. An oral food challenge is done at the Charleston Allergy & Asthma office, so it’s in a closely monitored and controlled setting. The food challenge is helpful in determining if a child has outgrown a food allergy. No test is 100 percent certain, Dr. Dietrich says, so doctors may opt for a combination of tests to achieve the most reliable results.
2. What’s the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?
A food allergy is an exaggerated immune response to an allergen. The body mistakes a food protein as “dangerous” and attacks it by producing an antibody. Those antibodies then trigger a variety of symptoms. Food allergies are quite serious, and even a small amount of exposure can trigger a possibly life-threatening reaction.
A food intolerance is a nuisance, but it’s not generally life threatening. Someone with a food intolerance to lactose or eggs, for example, will experience digestive discomfort but the food doesn’t impact the person’s immune system. Usually someone with a food intolerance can have a small amount of the food without a problem.
3. What is the best treatment for a severe reaction to a food allergy?
The most severe allergic reaction is anaphylaxis – a life-threatening, whole-body allergic reaction that can impair breathing, cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure and affect the heart rate. Anaphylaxis can come on within minutes of exposure and can be fatal. A severe reaction like that should be treated immediately with an injection of epinephrine – usually referred to as an EpiPen. The person then should be taken to a hospital or doctor for additional medical treatment and follow-up care.
It’s critical for anyone with a severe food allergy to have epinephrine available at all times. Parents should work with their board-certified allergist to create a food allergy action plan that includes details on how to avoid certain foods and what treatment is needed in the event the child accidentally ingests the food. This food allergy action plan should be shared with anyone who cares for the child – teachers, grandparents, babysitters or coaches.
4. Can a reaction to a food allergy be prevented?
The best way to prevent a food allergy is by avoiding the food or foods that cause a reaction. Once a food allergy is diagnosed, parents should be careful about reading food labels, ask about ingredients when dining out and remind children not to share food with friends.
5. Why are food allergies on the rise?
Pediatricians previously recommended parents avoid feeding babies any highly allergic foods (such as peanuts) until they were older, Dr. Dietrich says. New research has found the earlier children are introduced to food, the less likely they are to develop allergies. Doctors now recommend giving children most foods before their first birthday.
6. Can you develop a food allergy at any age?
Yes, although it’s more common for food allergies to develop in children. Among those under the age of 18, one in 13 children is diagnosed with a life-threatening food allergy, which means there could easily be two children in a single classroom with a severe food allergy.
While people can be allergic to any food, there are common culprits. These eight foods account for 90 percent of food allergy reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Adults can develop allergies as they age, most commonly to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
7. Who is most at risk for developing a food allergy?
Those with a family history of allergies are at a greater risk. Also, children who have a personal history of asthma or eczema are more likely to develop food allergies.
8. What does a food allergy reaction look like?
Reactions look different for each person, but common symptoms include hives, swelling, breathing problems, vomiting, stomach cramps, low blood pressure, throat closure or dizziness. A person’s symptoms can vary from reaction to reaction, so Dr. Dietrich stresses the importance of having that food allergy action plan and being prepared for all situations.
9. How long does it take a food allergy reaction to go away?
A food allergy reaction can happen within minutes or it may take an hour to two for symptoms to develop. With prompt treatment of epinephrine, a reaction can be stopped quickly.
10. Is there anything I can do prevent my child from getting a food allergy?
Start introducing babies to food early. Also, feed your children allergenic foods – and a variety of foods – on a regular basis, which will decrease their risk of developing a food allergy.
Have more questions about food allergies? Request an appointment with Charleston Allergy & Asthma online at charlestonallergy.com.