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Food Allergy

Last updated on Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Overview

Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food that occurs when the immune system mistakes certain components of the food as harmful and proceeds to attack them. Ingestion of the food triggers symptoms characteristic of an allergic reaction, which range from mild to severe. These include gastrointestinal discomfort (such as heartburn, burping, and nausea), respiratory distress (labored breathing or shortness of breath), and skin reactions. Due to the possible fatality of these reactions, those with food allergies are advised to seek medical evaluation. Food allergy can occur in both children and adults and is estimated to affect about 12 million Americans.

Causes

In adults, the most common foods that cause allergy include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, shellfish, soy, and wheat. Some other foods containing allergenic proteins are seeds, spices, fruits, vegetables, food colorings, and chemical additives. In children, the most common allergenic foods are eggs, milk, peanuts, and fruits, especially tomatoes and strawberries.

Food allergens, food components responsible for stimulating allergic reactions, are most commonly proteins that are resistant to heat, stomach acid, and digestive enzymes. They cross the gastrointestinal lining into the bloodstream to be carried to organs, inducing responses from the immune system. When a person is first exposed to the food, the allergen incites immune cells to produce specific antibodies and forms immune memory. Every subsequent ingestion of the food results in the antibodies tagging allergens as harmful and inducing an immune response. These chemicals mediate inflammatory responses characteristic of food allergy symptoms.

Symptoms

Allergic reactions to food may occur within a few minutes to an hour of eating, and some of the most common initial symptoms include:

  • Itching in the mouth and difficulty in swallowing and breathing;
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain during digestion;
  • Dizziness, weakness, and sudden drops in blood pressure;
  • Hives and eczema once the allergen reaches the skin;
  • Asthma-like symptoms once the allergen enters airways.

Prevention and Treatments

Strict avoidance of the allergy-inducing food is the best and only way to prevent the reactions. Follow a diet to avoid ingesting the food, and minimize exposure (via kissing, inhalation, blood transfusions) to those who have recently contacted the food. Read the ingredient labels for all foods, and inquire the manufacturer for more information when in doubt. There is no cure for food allergies as of the present time, but medication can be used to treat the reactions. Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is commonly used to control reactions by improving circulation and may be prescribed by a physician as a self-injectable device. Steroids, antihistamines, and desensitization are some of the other ways to relieve food allergy reactions.

Tags: allergic reactionsallergiesfirst-aidfoodimmune system

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