Food allergy is a serious medical condition that affects approximately 15 million people in the United States. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), food allergy symptoms send someone to the emergency room every three minutes and food allergy costs families over $25 billion each year. I know you are wondering … what exactly is a food allergy and what causes the allergy? A food allergy is nothing more than a simple case of mistaken identity that can have serious consequences. The body’s immune system mistakes a harmless food protein — an allergen — as a threat and attacks it.
Ninety percent of all food allergies in the U.S. are attributed to the following eight foods or food groups:
• Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans)
• Shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp)
Reaction symptoms typically appear within minutes to several hours after eating the food. The most common signs and symptoms of a food-related allergic reaction include hives, itching or skin rash; swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body; wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing; abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting; dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting. Extreme reactions can be live-threatening — swelling of the throat and air passages making it difficult to breathe, shock with a severe drop in blood pressure, rapid irregular pulse, loss of consciousness.
It can be difficult for adults to realize when a child is having an allergic reaction if there are no visible signs. Toddlers and small children sometimes put their hands in their mouths to “scratch” or they may pull or scratch at their tongue. A child’s voice may change (hoarse/squeaky) or they may slur their words. Older children may describe their symptoms as “mouth itching, tingling, on-fire, bugs crawling in their mouth/throat or feels funny.” If they are experiencing swelling, they may describe the symptoms as “lips/throat are tight, frog in their throat or something is stuck in my throat.
Have you ever wondered why daycares and schools have strict policies about allowing children to bring in treats and home-made goodies to share or for parties? Food allergy is more prevalent in children than adults. One in 13 children in the U.S. — or roughly two in every classroom — have a food allergy. According to the CDC, reported food allergy has increased among children of all ages in the U.S. over the last 10 years.
What can you do if you have been diagnosed with a food allergy? There is no cure for food allergies or medications available to prevent a food allergy; talk with your doctor about medications that can help control the symptoms of a reaction. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid problem foods. Plan ahead to protect yourself from reactions to food allergens when you are eating away from home. Always read labels; food labels are required to state clearly whether the food contains a major food allergen. Ask food service employees which items on the menu contain potential food allergens. Alert them to your food allergies and request that no cross-contact occurs with your food. Make sure your family and friends are aware of your food allergy and what they should do if you have a reaction. Wear medical alert jewelry that identifies your allergy and carry your medication with you at all times.
Mitzi Parker is Sumter County Extension agent/Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact her at 229-924-4476.