In the United States, there are over 160 food items that can result in allergic reactions. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, millions of people suffer from these types of reactions on a yearly basis. Up to eight percent of sufferers are children, while two percent of adults are affected by it. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that of these people, 30,000 a year go to the hospital as a result of severe, life-threatening reactions, and there are approximately 150 deaths associated with it. In some cases, people may have food intolerance, instead of a true food allergy. These typically do not involve the immune system, but they can cause adverse reactions. Because nearly anyone can have a food allergy, it is important for people to understand the seriousness of the condition. To understand the seriousness of food allergies, people must first educate themselves about what it is, and how the people around them are affected.

What Are Food Allergies

When a person has an extreme response that is triggered by specific types of food, he or she has what is known as food allergies. The actual response to the food in question, which is referred to as the allergen, is called an allergic reaction. The foods, or allergens, are typically harmless to most people. Food allergies are caused when the immune system confuses a specific food for something that represents a danger to the person's body. As a result, it produces antibodies that are called immunoglobulin E. On first contact, the antibodies neutralize the perceived threat without any symptoms. When the food is consumed again, the antibodies trigger chemicals in the bloodstream, such as histamines. These chemicals cause an allergic reaction that produces symptoms that range from stomach discomfort to tongue or throat swelling, to difficulty breathing. In the worst case, a person could experience anaphylaxis, which is potentially life threatening if not treated immediately.

Developing Food Allergies

When it comes to the development of food allergies, they occur more often in young children than in adults. There is some controversy as to how early a child may develop this type of allergy. Some studies have shown that children may develop food allergies while in the womb. The belief is, if a mother consumes certain high risk foods such as peanuts while pregnant, she increases the risk that her child will have these allergies. Researches have gone back and forth with this theory, and have been unable to confirm or disclaim it. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, by the age of four, some children will grow out of certain types of food allergies. However, children that have an allergy to major food allergens such as shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts normally do not experience any positive changes to their allergic condition.

Even if a person has never previously experienced a food allergy, it is possible for his or her body to develop antibodies that result in an allergic reaction. People with a family history of food allergies, or who suffer from other forms of allergies are more at risk of developing food allergies than other people. Adults are more likely to have a reaction from fish, tree nuts such as pecans or walnuts, peanuts, and shellfish. Foods such as milk, eggs, wheat, shellfish and tree nuts are common food allergy triggers for children.

Diagnosing Food Allergies

There is not one specific test that doctors use to determine food allergies. An accurate diagnosis typically involves a number of steps, starting with a physical examination and a medical history. The medical history gives the doctor pertinent information about the current symptoms. It also gives him or her information about any family or personal history of food and other types of allergies. A skin test may be given in which the skin is scratched or pricked after the suspected food culprit is placed on the skin. This allows a small amount of food to reach beneath the skin. If a reaction, such as hives or a bump, occurs this may indicate an allergy to the food. A doctor may also ask a patient to eliminate suspect foods from his or her diet. Generally, the foods are not eaten for one to two weeks before they are reintroduced back into the diet. If more than one food is suspected, the foods are reintroduced one at a time. Any reaction to the food introduced marks it as a likely source of the allergy. Patients who keep a food diary may also help their doctor in the diagnosis of a food allergy. Finally, to help confirm that there is a food allergy, a doctor may perform a blood test.

Treating Food Allergies

Avoiding, or not eating, foods that cause the allergic reaction is the only real form of treatment that is available for people with food allergies. To avoid these foods people must take certain preventative measures, or precautions, such as checking labels or buying substitutes. The only true form of treatment is for the symptoms associated with actual allergic reactions. For example, a person who experiences minor itching on their skin may use antihistamines. Injectable epinephrine may be carried and used if a person experiences a serious reaction. The epinephrine injector is prescribed by a physician and should always be carried. This injection should be given; however, the person suffering the reaction must go immediately to see his or her doctor or to an emergency room for medical treatment.

Precautions

Taking certain preventative measures, or precautions, can help prevent dangerous allergic reactions from occurring. As previously mentioned, reading labels on food prior to purchase is an important safety precaution. This can inform a person if the food that they are buying contains an ingredient that could result in a reaction. When dining out, people should inform the staff of their allergy and question how food is prepared. Often, an allergic reaction can occur even if food is prepared on the same surface as the food allergen. When eating at another person's home, the host should be made aware of the allergy, as well. When raising a child with food allergies, parents must tell the school of allergies and must also inform parents of friends. This is important in the event that the child eats or spends the night at a friend's home. Wearing a medical alert bracelet will inform people of food allergies. This is crucial in the event that either an adult or child is unable to do so because of a severe allergic reaction.

More Information

People living with allergies must also recognize what the symptoms are of an allergic reaction. This is important for both the person who suffers from food allergies, but also for anyone who lives with or interacts with them. Food allergies can affect a person's skin, digestive system or their respiratory system. These symptoms do not change, regardless of whether the person is a child or if he or she is an adult. If symptoms affect the skin, there may be redness, itching, hives, or swelling. Itching and swelling of the mouth or throat, nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps are signs of symptoms that affect the digestive system. When a person shows symptoms associated with the respiratory system, there may be sneezing, a runny nose, difficulty breathing, or coughing. People must also be able to recognize anaphylaxis. This reaction is severe and can kill a person if not treated immediately. A severe drop in blood pressure can cause a person to lose consciousness, and the throat and airways can swell to the point that the sufferer is unable to breathe. Because of this, a person with food allergies should always carry epinephrine and should always make those around them aware of their condition. Regardless of whether the reaction is severe or mild, a person with food allergies should seek medical attention after a reaction, as even seemingly mild reactions may turn severe.

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