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Food Allergy

Alternate Names

  • food hypersensitivity

Definition

A food allergy is an abnormal response of the immune system that is caused by the protein in certain foods. A food allergy is not the same as food intolerance. A person with food intolerance may have symptoms, such as abdominal distress, after eating a certain food. However, this response is not caused by the immune system.

What is going on in the body?

A food allergy occurs when an immune response occurs. An immune response is a normal response of the body to something it sees as abnormal. Usually the response is to bacteria, viruses, and toxins. However, sometimes the body will react to certain foods as if they are abnormal, and when this occurs, the body produces an antibody known as IgE. IgE reacts with mast cells, which are part of the immune system.
The reaction affects mast cells in many areas of the body, including the following:
  • lungs
  • nose and throat
  • skin
  • stomach and bowels
When the IgE reacts with the mast cells, histamine is produced. This chemical produces the symptoms of a food allergy.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

A food allergy is an abnormal immune system response to protein in certain foods. Some of the foods that commonly cause food allergies include:
  • eggs
  • fish
  • milk and other dairy products
  • peanuts and peanut oil
  • shellfish, such as shrimp and crab
  • soy
  • tree nuts, such as walnuts
  • wheat
  • whitefish
There is some evidence that genetically modified corn, known as StarLink, may cause severe allergic responses. This possibility is currently being investigated. Most people with food allergies also have other allergy-related disorders. These include nasal allergies to dust and pollen, eczema, and asthma.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

In general, there is no way to keep from developing food allergies. There is some evidence that breastfeeding reduces an infant's chance of developing food allergies later.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis of a food allergy begins with a medical history and physical exam. The healthcare professional may order other tests, including the following:
  • antibody titer tests to measure the level of IgE
  • double-blind food challenge, which tests the person's response to suspect foods
  • elimination diet, which removes the suspect food from the person's diet
  • skin tests

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Some children who develop food allergies outgrow them. However, food allergies are usually lifelong conditions. Effects range from abdominal discomfort to life-threatening anaphylaxis or death. Foods that cause allergic reactions should be avoided.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Food allergies are not contagious and pose no risk to others.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Foods that cause an allergic response should be eliminated from the diet. It is important to read food labels carefully. Peanuts and milk, for example, are in many prepared foods.
Some of the medications used to treat an allergic response include:
  • antihistamines to block the mast cell reaction that causes symptoms
  • bronchodilators to open tight airways
  • corticosteroids to reduce the immune response
  • epinephrine to minimize the allergic response and prevent anaphylaxis
People with severe food allergies may carry either an EpiPen or an Ana-Kit. These are devices containing epinephrine to prevent anaphylaxis. These devices can be used by the person or a bystander to inject the medication.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Bronchodilators and epinephrine raise the heart rate and blood pressure. Antihistamines can cause drowsiness and dry mouth. Corticosteroids may increase the risk for infection.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Most individuals who have food allergies have them for their entire lives, though some children may outgrow food allergies. Food allergies can lead to dietary restrictions that may cause malnutrition if the restrictions are severe. Individuals with food allergies may need to make an overall change in lifestyle. The individual should wear a medical alert bracelet identifying the allergy.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Individuals should note if they are developing symptoms when they eat certain foods. They should also note whether different foods are causing allergic reactions. If these occur, a healthcare professional should be consulted. Any other new or worsening symptoms should also be reported.

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