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June 6, 2006 > Understand Food Allergies

Understand Food Allergies

For people that suffer from a food allergy, eating is a serious business. Casually popping food into their mouths is not something they take for granted. Common foods like milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy can present a significant health danger. The body's immune system responds to certain foods as a threat and can cause a physical reaction ranging from a rash to a serious illness. At its most extreme, a food allergy can lead to anaphylaxis, a generalized release of chemicals in the body leading to low blood pressure and possibly death.

"Only two to four percent of the population has true food allergies," says Dr. Brian Lipson, an allergist and immunologist at Washington Hospital. "The incidence is low but a reaction could be life threatening and its something that should be taken seriously."

Food allergy and food intolerance are often confused by people believing they mean the same thing. A food allergy occurs when the body's immune system decides that a particular food is harmful and creates specific antibodies to combat that food. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, including histamine, in order to protect the body. This "battle" causes the allergic reaction.

"Food allergies are a big concern for children. Children are often allergic to milk, eggs and wheat but will outgrow them by age five or six," says Dr. Lipson, noting also that "it is not that unusual to have an adult manifest a new food allergy."

A person with food intolerance has an adverse food-related reaction, but it does not involve the immune system. For example, a person who is lactose intolerant lacks an enzyme needed to digest milk sugar and can react to dairy products with symptoms like gas, bloating and abdominal pain. Other adverse food reactions could be indications of metabolic disorders, ulcers or cancer.

An estimated 12 million Americans have a food allergy and must rely on ingredient information about everything they eat. A food allergy could be caused by anything that contains a protein, including vegetables, fruit, meat, grains and dairy. There is no cure for food allergies. Therefore, food allergies can affect us all, whether as individuals or as people caring for family, friends, classmates or customers.

Symptoms of food allergies often begin with a tingling sensation in the mouth, or reactions on the skin with hives or swelling of the lips, tongue or face. Sometimes an allergy affects the gastrointestinal tract causing stomach pain, diarrhea or vomiting. More serious allergies cause shortness of breath or wheezing. A serious drop in blood pressure or even death can occur from food allergies. Symptoms usually appear within minutes but can take up to two hours after the allergic person has eaten the food.

If you have a known food allergy, Dr. Lipson says "avoidance is about the only thing you can really do" to protect yourself. If someone appears to be experiencing an allergic reaction, fast action and quick treatment can save a life.

"We recommend people carry injectible adrenaline with them at all times and use it immediately if they are having an allergic reaction, and then go immediately to the emergency room," Dr. Lipson says.

Protect yourself and your family

Notify your doctor if you believe you have a food allergy. A physician can prescribe epinephrine to help you control a severe reaction. A physician will also be able to help you get a medical identification bracelet to alert others about your allergy.

One way to protect yourself from food allergies is to begin reading ingredient labels. Beginning January 1, 2006, food manufacturers have had to comply with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, a new law requiring companies to list, in simple language, the major allergens that cause 90 percent of food-allergic reactions.

When eating at a restaurant, with friends, at school or any other environment in which you did not prepare the meal yourself, don't be afraid to ask what is in the food. Be sure to educate friends and family about your allergies so they can make efforts to prepare food that is safe for you. Do not let children with food allergies share their lunch with other children in school. They may not know what is in the other child's meal.  For an allergic person, even the smallest use of the allergic ingredient can cause a reaction.

For parents introducing solid foods to infants, it is best to delay the introduction for six months and ideally exclusively breast feed for those six months. Start with the least processed foods and gradually expand the child's menu. The best indicator of foods that may cause allergies in your children can be based on whether you have any allergies to food.

For more information on food allergies, visit

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