May is Food Allergy Awareness Month

Epidemic Infographic 32M

 

Food allergies affect approximately 32 million Americans. A food allergy is an immune system response that occurs after eating certain foods. The body’s immune system is responsible for identifying and attacking harmful things in the body, such as bacteria and viruses. When a food allergy occurs, the body’s immune system overreacts to certain harmless foods, causing an allergic reaction. There is no cure for food allergies, but some children may outgrow a food allergy and will be able to eat foods they were previously allergic to later in life. Some food allergies can be very minor and some can be so severe that they are life threatening. It can be easy to confuse a food allergy with a food intolerance. A food intolerance may involve minor to severe reactions to certain foods, but does not involve the body’s immune system (e.g. lactose intolerance).

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are over 160 foods that can cause food allergies. Current law requires that the eight most common food allergens (which account for 90% of food allergic reactions) are clearly labeled on all food and beverages so consumers can easily identify if they contain one or more of these allergens. The eight common food allergens include the following:

  1. Milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
  4. Crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
  5. Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
  6. Peanuts
  7. Wheat
  8. Soybeans


Symptoms of a food allergy can often start out mild and quickly become severe and even life threatening. Mild symptoms of a food allergy can include the following:

  • Hives (reddish, swollen, itchy areas on the skin) or redness of the skin
  • Eczema flare (a persistent dry, itchy rash)
  • Itchy mouth or ear canal
  • Gastrointestinal upset including stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Sneezing, nasal congestion, or runny nose
  • Slight, dry cough
  • Odd taste in mouth


Severe symptoms of a food allergy can include the following:

  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, trouble swallowing
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing, turning blue
  • Drop in blood pressure (feeling faint, confused, weak, passing out)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain or a weak pulse
  • Sense of “impending doom”


It is important that caregivers are trained on recognizing these symptoms early and are familiar with an individual’s food allergy treatment plan. If symptoms are mild, an antihistamine drug may be prescribed. If symptoms are severe, immediate treatment is needed, usually including an epinephrine injection. People with a food allergy may be prescribed an “as needed” epinephrine injection, which can help to reverse allergic reaction symptoms and prevent someone from going into anaphylactic shock. People with food allergies should have an individualized plan created by their healthcare provider. Food Allergy Research & Education’s (FARE) website has a helpful tool titled “Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan” which can be individualized with anyone’s detailed plan and signed by their doctor.

Here is the link to their tool: https://www.foodallergy.org/life-with-food-allergies/food-allergy-anaphylaxis-emergency-care-plan

If you or someone you care for has a food allergy, it is very important to carefully read food labels prior to ingesting any potential allergens. Wearing a type of medical alert device would also be helpful in the event an individual has an allergic reaction in a public place and is unable to communicate.  Someone with a food allergy may want to speak to their doctor about being prescribed an emergency epinephrine injection. If this is prescribed, it is a good idea to always have this on hand in the event an allergic reaction occurs. When eating out in a restaurant, it is important to make sure the chef knows what you are allergic to. Some food allergies are so severe that food being prepared in the proximity of known food allergens can cause a severe allergic reaction. It would also be helpful to plan ahead for any meals or snacks that will be eaten outside of the home. It may seem overwhelming to deal with a food allergy; it is important to know that you are not alone. FARE’s website also has a helpful search tool to locate local support groups: https://www.foodallergy.org/education-awareness/find-a-support-group

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