Allergies The 411 on Food Allergies

Woman reading product labelAlways read labels carefully to identify the ingredients in packaged foods.An allergic reaction to a food is an unpleasant reaction caused by the immune system overreacting to a food. The most common type of food allergy is caused by an overly sensitive immune system that creates IgE antibodies directed against an otherwise harmless protein in the food.

Unpleasant reactions to foods not caused by the immune system are considered to be food intolerances. Food intolerances have various causes. For example, a person may lack an enzyme needed to digest a portion of a certain food, as is the case with lactose intolerance. Or the food may be contaminated by bacterial or other toxins that cause symptoms resembling those of food allergy, which is what happens when someone has food poisoning.

Since so many people have a negative reaction to a food at some time in their lives, the public perception of the prevalence of food allergy is skewed. In reality, very few people are truly allergic to foods. It is estimated that eight percent of young children, and three to four percent of adults, have food allergies. However, for those who are allergic, it is important to diagnose the allergy and identify the food so that serious, and even life-threatening, reactions can be avoided.

There is currently no cure for food allergy, but treatments are being investigated. While injectable epinephrine and antihistamines can be used to alleviate symptoms resulting from accidental exposures, the best way to manage food allergies is through complete avoidance of the suspected food.

The following are some tips to help prevent food allergic reactions:
• Know the different names of foods to which you are allergic. (For example, lactate solids are a milk product.)
• Read labels carefully to identify the ingredients in packaged food.
• Ask about ingredients in food served at a restaurant or a friend’s home.
• Educate caregivers about food allergies.
• Encourage children with food allergies not to eat food given to them by friends.
• Have a food allergy action plan.
• Always carry injectable epinephrine (like an EpiPen or AuviQ) and an oral antihistamine as prescribed for emergencies.

You can learn more about your food allergies and how to avoid foods you are allergic to by talking with your doctor or a registered dietitian. 

Food Allergy FAQ

Q: What are common symptoms of food allergies?
A: Symptoms can vary, but common food allergy symptoms are abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, trouble swallowing, swelling (of the face, hands, etc.), hives, and itching. Some children and adults also experience coughing and wheezing. In very severe cases, trouble breathing, fainting, and shock can occur.

Q: What foods are most likely to cause food allergy?

A: The most common foods to cause allergic reactions in young children are milk, eggs, wheat, soy, and peanuts. For adults, the most common foods to cause allergic reactions are fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts.

Q: What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?
A: Having an unpleasant reaction to food is a fairly common problem. Fortunately, true food allergy is a relatively uncommon medical condition. An allergic reaction to a food is caused by the immune system overreacting to a specific component of that food. A food intolerance can cause similar unpleasant reactions when eating a food, but the immune system is not involved. The most common example of a food intolerance is lactose intolerance.

Q: Are there links between food intolerances and skin reactions such as psoriasis?
A: There are no links known at the present.

Q: Are those who have MSG allergies more apt to have problems with seasonal allergies?
A: There is no relationship between seasonal allergy and MSG intolerance.

Q: Can an antihistamine prevent allergic reactions in people with food allergies?
A: For those with a true food allergy, taking an antihistamine during an allergic reaction may be helpful to relieve the hives and itching. However, antihistamines have little role in relieving any type of respiratory problem. If a person is having anaphylaxis or respiratory symptoms (such as throat closing, coughing, or wheezing), the only treatment that is effective is injectable epinephrine. For adverse reactions to foods that are not allergic in nature, antihistamines have little effectiveness.

Q: Can someone outgrow peanut allergy?
A: Young children often outgrow their food allergies, especially to soy, wheat, egg, and milk products. It is less likely that a child will outgrow peanut allergy. However, studies during the past few years have indicated that about 20 percent of children with allergic reactions to peanut in the first years of life may eventually outgrow their sensitivity. Children with food allergies should see their allergist at least annually to reevaluate their allergies.

Source: National Jewish Health,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2016.