What you need to know about food allergies

May 17, 2024 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • Millions of Americans suffer from food allergies that can impact their quality of life.

  • New treatments are available to help those with food allergies reduce their risk for severe reactions.

  • If you suspect you or a loved one might have a food allergy, see a specialist to begin a treatment plan.

What you need to know about food allergies

For the nearly 32 million Americans who suffer from food allergies and their loved ones, mealtime isn’t always a pleasurable experience. It can often be scary. One bite of a food you are allergic to could trigger a life-threatening reaction.

“Having food allergies or caring for someone with food allergies can greatly impact your quality of life,” says Goutam Shome, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at Covenant Medical Group – Southwest Medical Park in Lubbock, Texas. “But we are living in a good time for food allergies. There are a lot of new treatments available to help people enjoy food again.”

Understanding food allergies

Food allergies are an immune system response to a food the body mistakenly believes is dangerous. While food allergies can develop at any time during your life, they are more likely to develop in children.

Almost 90% of food allergies are from nine categories. The most common food allergens include:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Egg
  • Fish
  • Peanut
  • Sesame
  • Shellfish
  • Soybean
  • Tree nuts

Dr. Shome says it’s important to realize that if you are allergic to one type of allergen, you are more likely to be allergic to others. “If you have an allergy to cashews, you are most likely allergic to other tree nuts as well so it’s important to avoid exposure to everything that would fall under that category,” he says.

Signs and symptoms of food allergies

Symptoms of a food allergy generally appear within five to 15 minutes of exposure and can range from mild to severe. Some common food allergy symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Eczema
  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach pain
  • Swelling of your lips, tongue or throat

Food allergies also can cause anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that could be life-threatening. Anaphylaxis causes your blood pressure to drop suddenly and your airways to narrow, which restricts your breathing. Anaphylaxis occurs within minutes of exposure to an allergen. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Dizziness
  • Itchy, flushed, pale skin
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Narrow airway
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Trouble breathing
  • Weak, rapid pulse

Anaphylaxis is treated with an immediate epinephrine injection (also known as an EpiPen®) and a follow-up visit to the emergency room. If left untreated, anaphylaxis can be fatal.

Food allergies versus food intolerance

Food allergies and food intolerances have similar symptoms but are different in how they affect your body. A food allergy causes an immune response. Food intolerance occurs when your body can’t break down a certain ingredient. Symptoms generally appear within a few hours.

“You may experience bloating, diarrhea and stomach cramps from food intolerance, but it will not cause life-threatening symptoms,” Dr. Shome says.

Examples of common food intolerances include milk (or lactose intolerance) and wheat. Food intolerance can generally be treated with an over-the-counter medication or avoidance of the food.

Testing for food allergies

If you think you or your child has a food allergy, Dr. Shome suggests keeping a journal to record symptoms. He also stresses the importance of seeing an allergy specialist.

There are several ways to test for food allergies. A blood test checks for increased levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). Blood tests can reveal false positive results in 50% of cases. Your health care provider may perform a skin allergy test by placing an allergen on your skin to see if you react.

Treating food allergies

Treatment for your food allergies depends on several factors, including the severity of your allergies and what your symptoms are. You should always do your best to avoid your known allergens. If you or a loved one has a food allergy, you should always read food labels to make sure you don’t accidentally eat something you are allergic to.

In mild cases, you may be able to treat your food allergy symptoms with an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl.

There is no cure for food allergies, but several innovative treatments are offering hope to those living with them. Two new treatments include:

  • Oral immunotherapy (OIT) – helps desensitize people to foods they are allergic to by eating the foods in increasing amounts under the guidance of a health care professional. It is commonly referred to as a food challenge. The goal is not to suffer a reaction if you’re accidentally exposed to your allergen. You begin by eating a small amount of the food you are allergic to and slowly increasing the amount you consume until your body begins to recognize the food. The entire process can take several weeks to months to complete. OIT can be done at any age but is most effective in children.
  • XOLAIR® – is a new medication approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for children over the age of one to minimize symptoms of food allergies. The injection is given every two to four weeks and blocks IgE, which causes food allergy reactions. The injections can be done at home or at your doctor’s office.

No matter the treatment, Dr. Shome says if you or a loved one is living with food allergies you should always be prepared by carrying an EpiPen. He also suggests having a plan of action in case you have a reaction to a food. Make sure you share the plan with your family and friends.

“If you suspect you have food allergies, it’s important to see a specialist who can help you confirm what you are allergic to and come up with a treatment plan that fits your specific needs,” Dr. Shome says.

Contributing caregiver

Goutam Shome, M.D., is an allergist and immunologist at Covenant Medical Group – Southwest Medical Park in Lubbock, Texas.

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Related resources

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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