The only way to truly diagnose food allergies is to get tested by an allergist. Please do NOT experiment by introducing new foods (especially with children) as some food allergies (especially nuts, peanuts and seafood) can be fatal. However, if you suspect you have a food allergy to foods you already eat, there are a few things you can do before getting tested by your doctor.
a. Keep a food diary. Be specific as you can (for example: instead of "toast", write down wheat bread, butter, strawberry jam). Note what you eat, and how you feel afterwards (rashes, itchy skin, pulse racing, headaches, depression, fatigue, insomnia, difficulty swallowing, vomiting). Be sure to include beverages as well.
b. Examine your family history. Do you or your family have other allergies including seasonal hayfever? People who have allergies in general are more likely to have food allergies. Environmental allergies to ragweed, for example, indicate that you'll likely react to cantaloupe and other melons. Also, some families may have generations of undiagnosed allergies that were misdiagnosed as other diseases. It has been suggested that many cases of chronic depression could actually be due to undiagnosed wheat allergies since wheat impacts your seratonin level.
c. Avoid taking aspirin within three hours of eating as The British Medical Journal reported that aspirin can cause more of the allergy-provoking food to be absorbed.
2. What are the symptoms of food allergies?
Food allergy symptoms (called anaphylaxis) may be mild (rashes, hives, itching, swelling, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, etc.) or severe (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, etc.). A food allergy can be potentially fatal. Please do not try to diagnose a food allergy on your own, please see a doctor since it's also possible that your adverse reactions could be attributed to food poisoning, histamine toxicity or additive allergies.
Learn more about anaphylaxis at FAAN.
3. What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?
Food allergies or food intolerances affect nearly everyone at some point. People often have an unpleasant reaction to something they ate and wonder if they have a food allergy. One out of three people either say that they have a food allergy or that they modify the family diet because a family member is suspected of having a food allergy. But only about 3% of children have clinically proven allergic reactions to foods. In adults, the prevalence of food allergy drops to about 1% of the total population.
Many people think the terms food allergy and food intolerance mean the same thing; however, they do not. Food intolerance, unlike a food allergy, does not involve the immune system and is not life-threatening. Lactose intolerance, trouble digesting the milk sugar lactose, is a common example. Symptoms of intolerance may include abdominal cramps, bloating and diarrhea.
A food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to a certain food. The most common form of an immune system reaction occurs when the body creates immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to the food. When these IgE antibodies react with the food, histamine and other chemicals (called “mediators”) are released, causing hives, asthma, or other symptoms of an allergic reaction.
4. What is the best test for food allergies?
There are three kinds of tests allergists usually choose from: scratch tests (also called prick tests) where concentrated amounts of the suspected allergen are applied to exposed skin, blood tests, and also Immunocap testing which is a newer, more accurate type of blood test. In general, the scratch test is the preferred method of testing according to Dr. Matthew Greenhawt. Read more on Dr. Greenhawt's allergy testing discussion here.
5. Is there a cure for food allergies?
At this time, no medication can be taken to prevent food allergies. Strict avoidance of the allergy-causing food is the only way to prevent a reaction. Medications are administered to control symptoms after a reaction occurs.
However, to prevent anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction to allergies, please get a doctor-prescribed Epi-pen. Also, consider wearing a medical bracelet (you can find stylish ones for men, women and kids here at Lauren's Hope) in case you are unconscious and cannot communicate your allergies to medical personnel. (For example, I am allergic to alcohol, and many emergency medicines are alcohol-based. You should definitely wear one if you are allergic to latex.) It has been suggested to wear medical bracelets on your left wrist which is the typical side where EMTs check for your pulse.
6. Where should I start to learn about food allergies?
Start with the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) which usually has the latest information available. You can find them at www.foodallergy.org. And also ask your allergist about your specific allergies and reactions so that you can monitor yourself once you leave the doctor's office, since everyone's case is unique. The prick tests are for fairly generic foods, and I've discovered a good portion of my additional allergies on my own. For example, I tested positive for lemons, and so was not too suprised to discover that I'm allergic to ALL citrus.
7. How do I teach my child about his/her food allergies?
Teach your child, in an age-appropriate way, how to be responsible for his or her food allergies. Get them a fashionable medical bracelet. Involve them in meal preparation, grocery shopping, and label reading — and teach them how to refuse food that a parent or responsible caregiver hasn't approved in advance. There are terrific support sites KidswithFoodAllergies.org and products such as checkmytag.com out there to help. I have these resources listed in the "Resources" section.
8. What are some safety tips for my child and his/her food allergies?
Make sure your child understands why she can't eat the same things as her siblings/friends/family and try to learn to cook items that are good for the entire family so as not to enforce separateness. Try to be calm and confident when teaching them, to help prevent anxiety and fear issues that they may learn from you if you are nervous.
Be aware that children have unique ways of describing their experiences and perceptions. Precious time is lost when adults do not immediately recognize that a reaction is occurring or don’t understand what a child is telling them.
Some children, especially very young ones, put their hands in their mouths or pull or scratch at their tongues in response to a reaction. Also, children’s voices may change (e.g., become hoarse or squeaky), and they may slur their words.
- "This food's too spicy."
- "My tongue is hot [or burning]."
- "It feels like something’s poking my tongue."
- "My tongue [or mouth] is tingling [or burning]."
- "My tongue [or mouth] itches."
- "It [my tongue] feels like there is hair on it."
In addition to this blog, there are lots of resources available. However, they are not all reputable. Be sure to check that there is medical credibility behind any testing methods or treatments, stick with the tried and true advice when it comes to medical information (FAAN, WebMD, Medicine.net, National Institute of Health) until you are more knowledgable about your particular situation. Reputable food allergy bloggers will become obvious when you do online searches and they are frequently used as a reference. Another good clue is that they openly share their sources of information (just like a good journalist).
Technology is an invaluable tool these days, allowing us so much more connectivity. Look to join support groups, social networks (I'm on Facebook and Twitter!) so that we can all meet, learn and share with others.
FAAN (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network)
Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Kids With Food Allergies (KFA)