Monika Pis, PhD, CPNP
True food allergy affects about 2% of the population. It’s important to distinguish an allergy from an intolerance to avoid unnecessary food restrictions.
A food allergy is an adverse reaction to a food that involves the immune system. When people ingest foods they are allergic to, their immune systems produce antibodies specific to that food. These antibodies attach to certain blood vessels (basophils and mast cells) and upon contact with a food allergen, release various substances responsible for allergic symptoms.
SYMPTOMS OF FOOD ALLERGY
- itchy skin rashes
- Throat tightness
- Swollen lips/tongue
- Pale skin
- Loss of consciousness
A food allergy can occur at any age. However, it occurs most often in children under 6 years of age. It’s estimated that 1 in every 20 children has food allergy. Food allergy is most common in children with a parental history of food allergy.
Foods that are responsible for most allergic reactions include milk, eggs, fish (tuna, salmon, cod), shellfish (shrimp, lobster), soy, wheat, peanuts, and tree nuts (walnuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios).
When the immune system reacts to a food allergen, several body systems may be involved and a person may experience multiple symptoms. If several body systems are affected, the reaction can be severe and life threatening, resulting in anaphylaxis.
A severe allergic reaction that comes on quickly and can be fatal is called anaphylaxis. A combination of symptoms may occur during anaphylaxis, but breathing and circulation problems may become severe. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention. Anaphylaxis is treated with epinephrine (epi) by injection. This medication reverses throat swelling and wheezing and improves blood pressure and circulation. Epi can save lives of those with food allergy, so if you suspect that your family member has food allergy discuss it with your health care provider as soon as possible.