Food Allergies Got You Scared?

Does watermelon make your throat itch?
Do peanuts scare you?
Would you rather swim with sharks than eat shellfish?
Food allergies have become an important part of our lives. Everyone knows someone in their child’s class that can’t have peanuts or a birthday party attendee that can’t have cake.
Food allergies affect approximately 12 million Americans & the incidence is highest in young children. Eight foods account for 90% of all food reactions in the US – milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, shellfish, tree nuts and fish.
What is a food allergy? Food allergy is an immune reaction that occurs when our immune system identifies a food as being a foreign substance. Food allergies are often confused with food intolerances that are not life-threatening and not immune mediated. Common symptoms include oral itching, swelling of lips or tongue, wheezing, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, hives, and possibly even anaphylaxis- a life threatening reaction. Even exposure to tiny amounts of the food can be life threatening.
Are food allergies becoming more common? We are definitely more aware of them especially with the media’s constant focus on food allergy reactions. There is evidence to suggest that the way foods are processed in the US also makes them more allergenic. For example, peanuts are usually dry roasted in the US while they are boiled in Asia. We have a much higher rate of peanut allergy in the US than China. The dry roasting changes the protein structure and makes it more allergenic. There are also scientists that believe the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ plays a role. The main premise of the hygiene hypothesis is that children exposed to infections, parasites & allergens at an early age allow their immune systems to develop normal responses. Environments free of these exposures, like ones found in the Western world, lead the immune system to react to otherwise harmless substances, like foods.
While these are all interesting ideas, they don’t change the fact that many families are being affected by food allergies. There is no cure for food allergies although many children do outgrow them- especially those with milk and egg allergies. The only treatment is strict avoidance- such that the immune system ‘forgets’ about the allergy.
An allergist can help to identify foods that truly may be allergens. Food allergy testing can be done via skin prick testing or blood testing, at the doctors’ discretion. Testing for foods has improved over time, but remains less reliable than testing to inhalants. Because of this, food allergy testing should be done only for foods that cause symptoms consistent with an allergic reaction. Sometimes testing done can provide families with unhelpful information.
So, enjoy all that summer has to offer. Just remember that when someone doesn’t devour your strawberry shortcake, it might just be because of a food allergy and not your cooking!
Dr. Mona Mangat MD is board certified in allergy/immunology, pediatrics & internal medicine. She graduated from Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (NEOUCOM) 6 year combined BS/MD program. Dr. Mangat opened Bay Area Allergy & Asthma in 2007. She lives in St. Petersburg with her 4 children & husband.