What You Need to Know about Food Allergies

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Imagine this. You're enjoying a favorite snack with your son when suddenly he begins to cough and gasp for air. He's not choking but you know something is seriously wrong. Does your child have a food allergy? Do you know what to do?

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the prevalence of food allergies among those under age 18 is somewhere between 1 and 10 percent. Applying this figure to the US Census July 2014 estimates, children with food allergies number between 3 to 7 million.

That said, what signs should you be on the lookout for? We checked in with Hafid Mantilla, MD, pediatric medicine at AdventHealth, to find out.

Signs include skin changes such as flushing or urticaria (rounded, itchy, skin swelling), gastrointestinal tract manifestations such as angioedema, vomiting, or diarrhea, and respiratory tract problems such as nasal congestion, rhinorrhea, airway swelling, difficulty breathing, or wheezing, and cardiovascular signs such as abnormal rhythms abnormally decreased blood pressures, he says.

Very often food allergies are confused with food intolerance. A food allergy is an immunologically mediated reaction and food intolerance is not. While any food can cause a food allergy, the most common culprits are cows milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

Cows milk allergy is more prevalent in boys than girls and comprises 10 to 19 percent of food-induced anaphylaxis cases in pediatric populations, he explains. Soy milk is not a solution for a cows milk allergy because those with cows milk allergy also can react to soy products. Five to 15 percent of infants with a milk allergy, for example, will have a soy milk allergy too.

The good news, he says, is that most children outgrow milk and egg allergies, with about half of those affected doing so by school-age. In contrast, most children (up to 90 percent) with peanut, tree nut, or seafood allergy retain their allergy for life.

We've rounded up some other important things to know:

What is anaphylaxis (ana-fi-LAX-is)?
Anaphylaxis is a severe life-threatening allergic reaction with a rapid onset (within minutes to hours) with involvement of the skin and/or mucus membranes. Anaphylaxis, by definition, also has involvement of the respiratory system (dyspnea, wheeze, bronchospasm, stridor) or the circulatory system with a drop in blood pressure or its associated symptoms, in addition to the above skin or mucus membrane signs.

What about food labels?
Food packages should be read carefully. Very often, processed foods are made in plants where other allergens (peanuts, tree nuts) are processed and small amounts ingested due to cross contamination may induce an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis.

What's epinephrine (ep'' i nef' rin), an epinephrine injection and how does it work?
Epinephrine is a peptide hormone used to treat anaphylaxis in the event of an emergency. Epinephrine pens are available by prescription and the medication is usually administered via an auto-injector, a medical device used for injecting a measured dose or doses of the medication.

What do parents, teachers and friends need to know about how to use an epinephrine auto-injector?
Instructions on the package should be followed carefully as there are several auto-injectors available in the United States. Be sure to ask your health care provider if you have additional questions.

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