Allergic reactions to food can range from the uncomfortable to life threatening. Here are some useful tips and tools to avoid and treat them.
What Is an Allergic Reaction to Food?
An allergy is an adverse health reaction triggered by your immune system to substances called allergens. A food allergy occurs when the immune system responds to a food as if it were a threat. The first few times a person at risk of developing a food allergy is exposed to the food, no symptoms are likely to occur. But the body has now been primed, and, in the future, that food may trigger an allergic response and one or more clinical symptoms. The symptoms of a food allergy can mimic those of a food intolerance, an unrelated disease that does not involve the immune system.
An allergic reaction to food usually takes place within a few minutes to several hours after exposure to the allergen. The process of eating and digesting food and the location of immune cells involved in the allergic reaction process affect the timing and location of the reaction.
How Food Allergies Develop
Food allergies are more common in children than in adults. Most kids will naturally outgrow allergies to milk, eggs, soy products, and wheat. Allergies to peanuts or tree nuts often are lifelong. An allergy that begins in adulthood, such as to shellfish, also tends to be lifelong.
Food allergies often co-exist with other diseases, such as asthma, eczema (atopic dermatitis), and eosinophilic esophagitis, a disorder that causes severe heartburn, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and difficulty swallowing food. If your family has a history of allergy, and you have eczema, then you are at greater risk for developing food allergies than someone who does not have them. The risk of harm to an individual with food allergy is hard to determine because the severity of any future reactions cannot be accurately predicted from the severity of past ones.
- About one in 20 children and one in every 25 adults in the United States has a food allergy.
- In the United States, the most common food allergies are to eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, crustaceans (shellfish), fish, and soy products.
- A severe, whole-body allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis, can begin suddenly and may lead to death if not treated right away.
To Find Out More
- MedlinePlus: Food Allergy
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Healthy Youth! Food Allergies
- Food and Drug Administration: Food Allergies—What You Need to Know