Food Allergy Awareness Week is May 9-15, 2021. The focus is to raise awareness of food allergies and anaphylaxis. It’s estimated that more than 32 million Americans have a serious and potentially life-threatening food allergy. And when you take into account all of the caregivers who shop for, cook for, and live with individuals with severe food allergies and food intolerances, that number jumps to nearly 85 million.
When someone develops a food allergy, all members of the family must learn to adapt. One in 13 children has some type of food allergy. Many people may not realize that food allergies can develop at any time, whether in childhood or as an adult.
Causes of food allergy
A food allergy occurs when your immune system overreacts to a harmless food protein. Often, if there is a family history of food allergies, an individual may be more susceptible to developing a food allergy.
Additionally, if you have other types of allergies, such as eczema or seasonal allergies (hay fever), you are at an increased risk of developing a food allergy. Those with asthma are also at a higher risk.
The most common food allergens are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. A true food allergy differs from food intolerances such as lactose intolerance, but the symptoms can be similar and can also overlap with other medical conditions, so it’s always important to have your symptoms diagnosed and to have a complete evaluation with an allergist.
Food allergies can be serious.
Food allergies may occur with any food and can happen at any time. Some people may be allergic to more than one food.
Reactions to food allergies can range from mild to life-threatening. A mild reaction may cause hives or stomach upset, while some food allergies can progress to anaphylaxis, which leads to serious results such as low blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and even death.
For people with a food allergy, even just a small amount of exposure to the problem food can cause an allergic reaction. Usually, symptoms can start anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after exposure.
Common symptoms of an allergic reaction to a food include the following:
• Swelling of the tongue, mouth, or face
• Difficulty breathing
• Low blood pressure
• Itchy rash
In the most severe cases, a food allergy can cause anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. Symptoms can come on very quickly and include an itchy rash, swelling of the throat or tongue, shortness of breath, and low blood pressure.
Managing food allergies
Unfortunately, there is no cure for food allergies, but they can be managed. Whether you are the one dealing with a food allergy, or you are caring for a child with a food allergy, there are many things you can do to protect yourself or your child.
- Always read food labels. When grocery shopping, always read food labels. You’ll need to read every label, every time, even if you’ve purchased that particular food before, as manufacturers often change ingredients.
- Be careful when cooking. If your entire family is not following an allergen-free diet, it is important to avoid cross-contamination. Have two sets of cooking and eating utensils, with one exclusively for the allergic person, so you don’t accidentally use a knife that was used to cut a peanut butter sandwich with the person who’s allergic to peanuts, for example. Wash all dishes and utensils in hot, soapy water between uses, or run them through the dishwasher.
- Dine out carefully. Never be embarrassed to ask questions and speak up about your food allergies when dining out. It’s best to always ask the waiter or chef how a dish is prepared and to let them know what your specific food allergy is. This applies to any restaurant, coffee shop, fast food restaurant, and more.
- Have an action plan. Make a plan on what to do if you accidentally come into contact with the food you are allergic to or accidentally ingest it. Keep a printed copy of the plan with you at all times. Make sure other people you are with, especially when dining out, are aware of your allergy and know what to do in case of emergency.
- Wear a medical ID bracelet. Always wear a medical identification bracelet that lists all of your specific allergies.
- Never leave home without your medications. If you have emergency medications, such as an EpiPen, always take it with you wherever you go, and ideally, carry two doses in case of a severe emergency. Some people with food allergies also carry over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl with them.
With proper management and careful attention, you don’t have to let a food allergy control your life.