Posted on: 12/09/2015
Tricia Kolczynski, FNP-C
Food allergy is a growing public health concern. According to the CDC, it is estimated that 4-6% of children and 14% of adults have food allergies. That is a staggering 15 million people in the United States. Food allergies in children increased 50% between 1997 and 2011, and the numbers continue to rise. This is a growing safety concern, and it is important for parents and other family members, teachers, and the general public to understand the sign and symptoms of acute allergic reaction and to treat the patient appropriately.
Simply put, a food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to the protein in the food which was ingested. The body sees the food as “foreign” and attacks it, causing an allergic reaction. Symptoms of an allergic reaction may range from mild to severe and include:
• Stuffy or itchy nose, sneezing, or itchy, teary eyes
• Hives, itching, and/or redness of the skin
• Swelling of the tongue, lips, or throat
• Tight, hoarse voice, lump in the throat
• Breathing difficulty, wheezing, or coughing
• Stomach cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea
• Feeling faint/drop in blood pressure, weak pulse
• Anxiety or feeling of impending doom
Anaphylaxis is a serious, life-threatening allergic reaction. Symptoms can affect several areas of the body and may threaten breathing and blood circulation. Food allergy is the most common cause of anaphylaxis. The most common food allergies are cow’s milk, eggs, fish, shellfish (crustaceans), wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. Sesame seed allergy is also on the rise.
There is no cure for food allergies. Suspected food allergies should always be evaluated, diagnosed, and treated by a qualified medical professional, usually an allergist. The allergist will obtain a comprehensive medical history, perform a physical exam, and order appropriate allergy testing. This may be done by skin prick testing and/or blood testing. Oral food challenges and elimination diets may also be recommended.
Once the food allergies have been identified, strict avoidance of the food allergen is the only way to prevent a reaction. In the event of accidental food exposure, persons with food allergy should carry injectable epinephrine at all times. Mild symptoms of allergic reaction (nasal congestion, sneezing, itchy, watery eyes) may be managed with oral antihistamines. However, for other symptoms of anaphylaxis (listed above), this is a medical emergency and prompt treatment with injectable epinephrine is required. Mounting research has shown that many fatalities could have been prevented with prompt administration of this life-saving medication. Anaphylaxis should always be treated as a medical emergency. Even if symptoms improve after the administration of epinephrine, patients should always be taken to the emergency room for further evaluation and treatment.
If you are suspicious of a food allergy, please speak with your health care provider and/or see an allergist for evaluation. For more information on food allergies, please visit the Food Allergy Research & Education website at www.foodallergy.org.
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