In a recent blog post, we chatted about spring-cleaning tips that anyone could use, but were especially helpful for allergy sufferers. Today, we focus our attention on a different type of reaction—food allergies. May is Food Allergy Action Month, and each year, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) hosts a nationwide Food Allergy Awareness Week to highlight the seriousness of food allergies and the threats they can pose on a person’s health.
I was amazed to learn that food allergies—undeniably a serious medical condition—affects roughly 15 million Americans, including 1 in 13 children, according to FARE’s website. Their message is clear: we need to increase awareness about food allergies, whether or not it affects us, and most importantly, learn as much as we can about the disease for our own well-being and the safety of food allergy suffers.
So, in support of FARE’s efforts, let’s chat and chew about common food allergies, symptoms, and tips for managing food allergies.
THE ALLERGY UMBRELLA
While food allergies are the topic of conversation, in general, allergies occur as a result of our immune system overreacting and mistaking a harmless substance—an allergen—as a threat (i.e. virus or bacteria) that it attacks. While there are more than 170 foods known to cause food allergies, the most common allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish, according the FARE’s website.
FOOD ALLERGY SYMPTOMS
Every 3 minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency department, according to FARE, which is more than 200,000 visits per year! Symptoms of an allergic reaction to food range in severity—your skin, gastrointestinal tract, and respiratory tract can all be affected, while severe cases can impact your cardiovascular system. Anaphylaxis—a severe, potentially life-threatening fatal allergic reaction—can impact several areas of the body and may lead to breathing and blood circulation complications.
While symptoms typically appear within minutes, they could develop several hours after eating whatever food caused the allergic reaction.
Mild symptoms may include the following:
- Hives (reddish, swollen, itchy areas of on the skin)
- Itchy mouth and ear canal
- Nausea or vomiting
- Nasal congestion or runny nose; sneezing
- Dry cough
Severe symptoms may include the following:
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, and/or throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Turning blue
- Drop in blood pressure (feeling weak, confused; passing out)
Keep in mind that children may communicate their symptoms in a different manner than adults. See what FARE says about ways a child might describe an allergic reaction.
CREATE A MAINTENANCE PLAN
While I personally do not suffer from food allergies, I have family and friends who do. In some cases, it’s mild—can’t eat strawberries—but on the other hand, being in the same room with certain foods is an automatic trip to the hospital. If you have food allergies, especially to common ingredients, speaking with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) might be beneficial to help clarify which foods are safe to eat, or how you can avoid certain foods without the added stress. It’s also important to know what vitamins you might be lacking due to dietary restrictions from allergies.
Knowing your labels is a very important part of the process as well. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to change ingredients of products without notice, so always double-check food labels when you are grocery shopping—especially the familiar ones. Also, don’t overlook make-up and beauty products, which might contain common allergens such as milk, egg, wheat, and tree nuts.
FUN FACT: As of January 1, 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), requires any food label—including conventional foods, dietary supplements, infant formula, and medical foods—containing major food allergens to note the allergen in plain language. This is done is one or two ways: the word “contains” followed by the name of the major food allergen (ex. “Contains milk, wheat”); or, in the ingredient list in parentheses (ex. “albumin (egg)”).
Since there are no medications currently available to help prevent food allergies, the onus is on the individual—and everyone around him or her—to avoid the foods causing allergic reactions. If you know you have food allergies, let people know so they can help, or at least be aware in case something goes wrong. While there’s no failsafe plan right now, preparing rather than reacting in the moment is another one step towards staying healthy, out of harm’s way, and alive.