The term food allergy is often misapplied, leading many people to believe that they are allergic to certain foods. A more accurate term would be food intolerance for many of these people. Food allergy symptoms can be caused either by a true allergic reaction to food or by simple food intolerance to specific components of a food. Symptoms may range from an upset stomach to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Identification and avoidance of any foods that trigger a reaction is the only cure available for food allergy.
A food allergy refers to a specific allergic reaction that involves the immune system, is triggered by a particular food, and is reproducible. In other words, the same symptoms—for example, wheezing or rash—must occur each time the food is eaten. It can also be called a hypersensitivity reaction as the immune system is very sensitive to the food.
Food intolerance, on the other hand, is an adverse reaction to a food and does not involve the immune system. Food intolerance symptoms may be inconsistent. Reactions to the suspected food may vary in severity with each exposure, or may not occur at all.
Food hypersensitivity is triggered by allergens—food components (usually proteins) that react with the immune system. Many different allergens can be present in the same food. Cow's milk, eggs, shellfish (shrimp, crab, or lobster), peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts), fish, soy, wheat, and even sesame seeds are the allergens that often trigger food hypersensitivity reactions.
Food hypersensitivity, especially to cow's milk, is seen more often in children than in adults. Many children outgrow food hypersensitivities in later years, with sensitivity to milk, egg, and soy the most likely to wane over time. People who are sensitive to seafood or nuts, however, will probably have to avoid those foods forever.
People who are allergic to certain foods are simply more sensitive to the allergens found in these foods. Allergic reactions to food result from the actions of a specific group of proteins called antibodies. Antibodies, an important part of the body's defense system, are activated when the offending food is eaten. Their role is to recognize foreign invaders (antigens)—in this case, allergens—and get rid of them. It is not known why the body will suddenly react to these food antigens as foreign invaders.
Certain types of antibodies, known as IgE, are more highly reactive, and usually more abundant, in people with food hypersensitivity.
When IgE antibodies encounter a food allergen to which they are sensitized, they attach themselves onto the food proteins. This attachment causes the immune system to release mediators—chemical messengers that travel through the bloodstream to alert other organs to the presence of an unwelcome protein guest.
Release of these mediators causes the uncomfortable—or occasionally dangerous—symptoms of an allergic reaction. The extent of the reaction depends on the quantity of food eaten, age and health status, and the route taken by the mediators. The 3 most common reaction sites include:
Symptoms of allergic reaction in the skin include rash, hives, and swelling of the skin and tissues of the face, lips, mouth, and throat, larynx, extremities, and genitalia. Itching and eczema (an itchy, scaly skin rash) are also common but usually occur several hours to days after the offending food is ingested. Hives and swelling are usually immediate reactions, typically occurring within minutes (sometimes seconds) of food ingestion. They sometimes require immediate treatment.
Mediators that travel to the GI tract may cause symptoms along its entire length: swelling of the lips, itchy mouth or throat, nausea and vomiting, cramps and bloating, abdominal distention or intense abdominal pain, and diarrhea .
Anaphylactic shock is an extremely severe and life-threatening type of allergic reaction. The symptoms occur in rapid succession, progressing from itching or throat swelling to difficulty breathing, and loss of consciousness or even death, if emergency treatment is not started.
Adverse reactions to food that occur outside of the immune system are defined as food intolerances. Distinguishing food intolerance from food hypersensitivity is often difficult, since the symptoms are quite similar. Food intolerances can be attributed to a number of different causes, including:
Sometimes the cause of food intolerance is unknown.
Diagnostic tests must be done to determine if a true food allergy is present. These might include:
Dietary modification is the usual method of treating food hypersensitivity with elimination of the allergy-causing food. An elimination diet can become very limiting, so you may be referred to a dietitian who can explain the diet and make sure your nutrition requirements are being met.
Although allergy injections and antihistamine medications work for pollen or inhaled allergens, these remedies are not used for food hypersensitivities or food intolerances. Strict avoidance of the offending foods is one treatment. This is a serious challenge—all restaurant dishes and food labels must be examined.
Sublingual immunotherapy may also be used. This type of treatment involves putting the allergic substances under the tongue to decrease or eliminate your response to a particular allergen.
When food hypersensitivity occurs, treatment may be needed right away. In the face of anaphylaxis, such action may be life-saving. You may need to have an epinephrine injection to stop the reaction. Further treatment in an emergency room or doctor’s office is generally required. This may include antihistamines, steroids, or both.
While an initial anaphylactic reaction may not be severe, the second may be fatal because it occurs after the body has had time to build up antibodies specific to the offending food allergen. An allergist can help you determine if you are at risk for this reaction. Most people who have had significant anaphylactic reactions should always carry an automatic epinephrine injector device. It allows them to rapidly treat symptoms until they can receive emergency treatment.
Allergy and Asthma Network
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
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Last reviewed December 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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