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Food Allergies – Reducing the Risks

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Food allergies can range from merely irritating to life threatening. Approximately 30,000 Americans go to the emergency room each year to be treated for severe food allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. It is estimated that 150 to 200 Americans die each year because of allergic reactions to food.

Food allergies affect about two percent of adults and four to eight percent of children in the United States, and the number of young people with food allergies has increased over the last decade, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children with food allergies are more likely to have asthma, eczema, and other types of allergies.

Some food allergies can be outgrown. Studies have shown that the severity of food allergies can change throughout a person’s life.

“There is no cure for food allergies,” says Stefano Luccioli, MD, senior medical advisor in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Food Additive Safety. “The best way for consumers to protect themselves is by avoiding food items that will cause a reaction.”

What is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy is a specific type of adverse food reaction involving the immune system. The body produces what is called an allergic, or immunoglobulin E (IgE), antibody to a food. Once a specific food is ingested and binds with the IgE antibody, an allergic response ensues.

A food allergy should not be confused with a food intolerance or other nonallergic food reaction. Various epidemiological surveys have indicated that almost 80 percent of people who are asked if they have a food allergy respond that they do when, in fact, they do not have a true IgE-mediated food allergy.

“Compared to food intolerances, food allergic reactions
pose a much greater health risk.”

Food intolerance refers to an abnormal response to a food or additive, but it differs from an allergy in that it does not involve the immune system. For example, people who have recurring gastrointestinal problems when they drink milk may say they have a milk allergy. But they really may be lactose intolerant.

“One of the main differences between food allergies and food intolerances is that food allergies can result in an immediate, life-threatening response,” says Dr. Luccioli. “Thus, compared to food intolerances, food allergic reactions pose a much greater health risk.”

Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of a food allergy usually develop within about an hour after eating the offending food. The most common signs and symptoms of a food allergy include

  • hives, itching, or skin rash;
  • swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body;
  • wheezing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing;
  • abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting; and
  • dizziness, light-headedness, or fainting.

In a severe allergic reaction to food – called anaphylaxis – you may have more extreme versions of the above reactions. Or you may experience life-threatening signs and symptoms, such as

  • swelling of the throat and air passages that makes it difficult to breathe;
  • shock, with a severe drop in blood pressure;
  • rapid, irregular pulse; and
  • loss of consciousness.

Major Food Allergens
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, a comprehensive food labeling law, has been in effect since January 1, 2006. Under FALCPA, food labels are required to state clearly whether the food contains a major food allergen.

A major food allergen is defined as one of the following foods or food groups, or is an ingredient that contains protein derived from one of the following foods or food groups:

  • milk;
  • eggs;
  • peanuts;
  • tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans;
  • soybeans;
  • wheat;
  • fish; and
  • shellfish, such as crab, lobster, and shrimp.

“These foods or food groups account for 90 percent of all food allergies in the United States, and FALCPA focuses on IgE-related food allergies,” according to Dr. Luccioli. “This law does not protect everyone with a food allergy, but should protect the majority of people who may have severe allergic responses to foods.”

Protecting Yourself
If you have food allergies, you must be prepared for unintentional exposures. To protect yourself, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases recommends that you do the following:

  • Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace stating that you have a food allergy and are subject to severe reactions.
  • Carry an auto-injector device containing epinephrine (adrenaline) that you can get by prescription and give to yourself if you think you are experiencing a food allergic reaction.
  • Seek medical help immediately if you experience a food allergic reaction, even if you have already given yourself epinephrine, either by calling 9-1-1 or getting transportation to an emergency room.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2010.