A food allergy is an immune system response to a food that the body mistakenly believes is harmful. Once the immune system decides that a particular food is harmful, it creates specific antibodies to it. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, including histamine, in order to protect the body. These chemicals trigger a cascade of allergic symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, or cardiovascular system. Scientists estimate that approximately 12 million Americans suffer from true food allergies.
Although food intolerances share some of the symptoms of food allergies, they do not involve the immune system. They can cause great discomfort but are not life-threatening. People with food intolerances are not able to digest certain foods because their bodies lack the specific enzyme needed to break down that food. For example, if you are lactose intolerant, you are missing the enzymelactase, which breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. The words “gluten intolerance” are sometimes used to describe Celiac disease. However, Celiac disease does involve the immune system and can cause serious complications if left unchecked.
What is the best treatment for food allergy?
Anaphylaxis is a sudden, severe, potentially fatal, systemic allergic reaction that can involve various areas of the body (such as the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and cardiovascular system). Symptoms occur within minutes to two hours after contact with the allergy-causing substance but, in rare instances, may occur up to four hours later. Anaphylactic reactions can be mild to life threatening. The annual incidence of anaphylactic reactions is about 30 per 100,000 persons, and individuals with asthma, eczema, or hay fever are at greater relative risk of experiencing anaphylaxis.
Who is at risk for having an anaphylactic reaction?
Anyone with a previous history of anaphylactic reactions is at risk for another severe reaction. Individuals with food allergies (particularly allergies to shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts) and asthma may be at increased risk for having a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. A recent study showed that teens with food allergy and asthma appear to be at highest risk for a reaction because they are more likely to dine away from home, they are less likely to carry medications, and they may ignore or not recognize symptoms.
Although an individual could be allergic to any food, such as fruits, vegetables, and meats, there are eight foods that account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions. These are: milk, egg, peanut, tree nut (walnut, cashew, etc.), fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.
Some people have the misconception that nuts are the only cause of anaphylaxis and that “healthy” food like milk or eggs couldn’t possibly cause death, but an individual may be anaphylactic to any food.