What is an allergy?

50 million Americans are allergic to something. Yes, allergy is that common. Be it pollen, food or animal dander, there are plenty of such allergens around us causing different types of allergies that include allergic rhinitis, asthma, food allergies, insect venom allergy, drug allergies, latex allergies, eczema, allergic conjunctivitis, chemical sensitivity, and so. However, among all the types of allergies known, food allergy is one of the most common allergies. 

Food Allergies

Food allergies are common. However, they are not the same as food poisoning or food intolerance. Food poisoning occurs when you become ill after consuming spoilt food whereas intolerance is when the body is not able to digest a particular food type. For example, lactose intolerance is a common food intolerance where the body is unable to digest lactose. On the other hand, food allergies occur when the body’s immune system identifies a particular food protein as an allergen or a potential threat. To combat this foreign substance, the body produces specific antibodies and releases potent chemicals, like histamine. As a result, you develop symptoms like itching, swelling, coughing, wheezing, and in severe cases, a life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. 

Common food allergies and allergens

Does your nose start running the moment you have hot spicy food? Do you get diarrhea if you eat cheese? These are common food reactions that many of us develop mostly due to food intolerance. Food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system identifies harmless food as allergens or foreign substances and starts reacting to it. From mild skin rashes to swelling of lips, and gasping for breath in severe cases are common signs of food allergies. Although they are serious, you can manage food allergies. Here are some of the most common food allergens

  • Milk (mostly in children)
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts, like walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, brazil nuts, and pecans
  • Soy
  • Wheat 
  • Fish (mostly in adults)
  • Shellfish (mostly in adults)

Some food allergens may cause allergic reactions in some individuals although these are rare:

  • Corn
  • Gelatin
  • Meat – beef, chicken, mutton, and pork
  • Seeds, often sesame, sunflower, and poppy
  • Spices, such as caraway, coriander, garlic, and mustard

Common symptoms of food allergy

Allergic symptoms can be from mild to severe. Symptoms may appear immediately after eating the food or hours later. Watch out for these signs to detect food allergy:

Mild symptoms 

  • Skin rash
  • Itching
  • Red and swollen skin
  • Itchy mouth and ear
  • Runny or stuffed nose
  • Sneezing and dry cough
  • Throwing up
  • Stomach upset and stomach ache
  • Diarrhea

Moderate symptoms

  • Swollen lips, tongues, throat
  • Chest pain and uneven heartbeat
  • Trouble breathing and swallowing

Severe symptoms

In severe cases, a food allergy can become life-threatening which is known as anaphylaxis. People who have asthma are more prone to develop anaphylaxis from food allergies. If you are prone to it, your doctor may suggest you to carry epinephrine injectables.  

Know about the hidden triggers

The best way to avoid a food allergy is to avoid the food. For this, you need to identify the hidden triggers. For example, if you are allergic to egg, know the ingredients before consuming a piece of cake or a cookie because it might contain eggs! Similarly, if you are allergic to milk protein, know that a piece of hotdog may contain milk protein. 

How many people have food allergies?

As we already mentioned, food allergy is extremely common. Researchers estimate that 32 million Americans have food allergies. Studies published in 2018 and 2019 estimate the number of Americans of all ages who have convincing symptoms of allergy to specific foods:

  • shellfish: 8.2 million
  • milk: 6.1 million
  • peanut: 6.1 million
  • tree nuts: 3.9 million
  • egg: 2.6 million
  • finfish: 2.6 million
  • wheat: 2.4 million
  • soy: 1.9 million
  • sesame: 0.7 million

While most children outgrow food allergies, for most adults it is incurable. However, a food allergy can be managed by avoiding the particular food. Reach out to your doctor immediately if you develop symptoms as mild symptoms may become severe and life-threatening at times.  

It is also advisable to keep a diligent record of your meals. This will help you analyze the foods that you eat, along with any symptoms you might experience once you have consumed the food. Such a food diary will help you take charge of your health.