Thirty-five years ago, the prevalence of food allergies was approximately one percent. Today, approximately 32 million Americans are living with food allergies. With these rising rates, it’s likely that you or someone you know suffers from this major health concern. Depending on when food allergies develop (as an infant or later in life as an adult), individuals and families with children can encounter unique challenges when choosing which foods to eat. But first, what are food allergies?
Food Allergies Defined
Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish are referred to as The Big Eight. These foods account for 90 percent of allergic reactions in the U.S. Allergens differ across the globe and can vary by country depending on the dietary patterns of the population. One example is sesame, which has been declared a major allergen in Europe and in Canada as well.
A food allergy is a serious medical condition in which the body’s immune system reacts to something in a food – typically a protein. When people with food allergies encounter an offending protein in food, their body’s immune system responds by releasing immunoglobulin. These antibodies cause immune-mediated reactions that result in a variety of symptoms from mild to severe. Reactions can take on the form of skin irritations such as rashes, hives and eczema. Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea and vomiting or a more severe reaction known as anaphylaxis can also be a reaction. Allergic reactions to food may not happen immediately. They can also vary in severity. Factors like the amount and when allergens were eaten play a role in each reaction.
Perhaps you or someone you know is living with a food allergy. Whether they are young, middle-aged or older, the fact is that everyone living with food allergies encounters unique and often different challenges at each stage of life. Here’s what you should know:
Milk is the most common food allergen among infants. Some infants are born with a milk allergy, and others develop it as they get older. Infants should consume breastmilk or iron-fortified infant formula until six months. Therefore, milk allergies can present a serious challenge to new parents. Milk allergies usually resolve over time. Before then, many infants experience fewer symptoms when breastfeeding mothers limit the number of dairy products in their own diets.
To limit food allergies later in life, peanuts and eggs can be introduced pretty early as a complementary food. Exposing infants to these foods at a later age can make food allergies more likely.
According to the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) organization, approximately 5.9 million children have food allergies. Most children outgrow milk, egg, soy and wheat allergies. However, some allergies persist. Reactions to peanuts, tree nuts and fish are among those that continue throughout adulthood. African American children are more likely to have wheat, soy, corn, fish and shellfish allergies. Hispanic children experience more reactions to corn, fish and shellfish.
As the population ages, some people have late-onset allergies. Individuals with late-onset allergies may have not been properly diagnosed as a child, while others might have become more aware of food allergies or their symptoms have alerted them to seek medical attention and diagnosis. The fact is that the immune system can become compromised with age, which can be a factor for allergies later in life and other health-related conditions.
Many adults self-diagnose food allergies based on negative reactions to certain foods. This information is important to record, but official allergy diagnoses must come from a board-certified allergist. These professionals use medical history, physical exams, food diaries and medical tests – skin-prick, RAST, a food challenge – to make diagnoses.
After a diagnosis, adults may choose to manage food allergies by avoiding their allergy-causing foods. Reading food ingredient labels is important and useful for doing so. But it can still be difficult to avoid allergens when eating away from home. Letting friends, family and waiters know about allergies can help sufferers avoid allergens and reduce the risk of an allergic reaction.
Suspected Food Allergy?
Living with food allergies creates challenges for people at every life stage. Luckily, food labels and alternative foods can limit some of the stress that allergens bring. If you believe that you or a loved one has a food allergy, contact a doctor. A medical diagnosis by an allergist is important for starting a management plan. Newly diagnosed patients can work with a registered dietitian for nutrition help. Dietary changes can be useful for successfully managing a food allergy with limited sacrifice to nutrition or the pleasure of eating.
What Should I Do?
If you think you have a food allergy or know someone who’s exhibiting symptoms – young or old – get a medical diagnosis sooner rather than later. The sooner that you are diagnosed, the easier it will be for you to manage any challenge that comes your way.
This blog post was written by Casey Terrell, MPH.