As we enter Food Allergy Awareness Week (May 12-18), here are four lifestyle management tips for those suffering from food allergies, as well as information on food allergy treatments.
Food allergies are effectively an overreaction of the body's immune system to what it perceives as a threat when it is presented with what should be considered by the body as a harmless food protein. The immune system "attacks" the allergen as if it were a germ. It does this by producing massive amounts of an antibody called immunoglobulin E, releasing histamine or other chemicals. The result: an allergic reaction to food.
Common non-life-threatening allergic reactions to foods include symptoms such as hives on the skin, itchy mouth or ear canal, vomiting, nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, eczema, uterine contractions, sneezing, nasal congestion, or a dry cough. Serious food allergy symptoms include a weak pulse, loss of consciousness, chest pain, dropping blood pressure, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, or a swelling of the mouth or throat that impinges upon breathing.
Just about any food can cause food allergy reactions. That said, an estimated 90 percent of all food allergic reactions in the US are attributed to wheat, egg, milk, soy, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, and peanut. For detailed info on these common food allergens, explore the Food Allergens section of the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization.
Treatment for food allergies
Alternatively, see the physician directory of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. The problem with attempting to diagnose food allergies on your own is that food allergies are easily misrecognized, which could result in avoidable dietary restrictions, lack of nutrition, or continuing allergic reactions to foods.
To identify food allergies, allergists use many different tests, including the skin prick test, a blood test, an oral food challenge, or a trial elimination diet. Once a food allergy has been identified, your allergist can help you with treatments that can alleviate or control symptoms. Unfortunately, at this point, there are no known food allergy cures. Until any cures for food allergies are found, the best food allergy treatment is to avoid the foods you are allergic to.
To reduce the severity of the mild to moderate food allergy symptoms, doctors often treat their patients with antihistamines or steroids. When a patient suffers from severe reactions, such as anaphylaxis, the doctor usually prescribes epinephrine, often in the form of an auto-injector. Epinephrine is capable of reversing food allergy symptoms.
Along with epinephrine, doctors often prescribe other medications, such as steroids, antihistamines, or short-acting bronchodilators, all of which can help relieve or control the severity of symptoms.
Four tips for coping with food allergies
- Respond quickly to severe food allergy reactions. Immediately take your prescribed epinephrine at the first signs of a reaction, and contact 911. Because breathing or consciousness problems may arise, request an ambulance rather than driving yourself. Make sure you and family members know to inform the 911 dispatcher that you have just administered epinephrine and that it was for an anaphylactic reaction to food.
- Practice and prepare to respond to food allergies. Just as fire drills and tornado drills save lives, so can food allergy drills. Know in advance where in your area there are emergency rooms capable of treating a severe food allergy. Just as experienced travelers locate the nearest fire escapes when they are staying away from home, experienced food allergy sufferers prepare for allergy attacks when traveling by finding out in advance where the nearest emergency rooms are, and by always keeping food allergy medications handy. As well, it's wise to practice using any prescribed auto-injectors before you actually need one. Ask your doctor for a auto-injector "trainer" device – similar to the real thing, but without the needle or medication.
- Get connected with a food allergy support group. It can be difficult and embarrassing to deal with food allergies on a day-to-day basis. Many food allergy sufferers find comfort and encouragement by joining a food allergy support group. To find a support group near you, take advantage of the FARE organization's food allergy support group search engine.
- Learn about food allergies and keep a diary. If you must live with food allergies, there are many reliable websites and books available to help you understand your allergy and know how to deal with them. Doctors also recommend that you maintain a journal of your own allergic reactions, which can be a great resource for you and your doctor. Identify which meals cause reactions, in which seasons of the year you most experience the reactions, and severity of reactions. Capturing this info will help you and your doctor identify food tolerance changes, which can help with dietary or medical treatment adjustments.
Boost awareness and solutions: Food Allergy Awareness Week