Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food, triggered by the body’s immune system. A food allergy occurs when the immune system responds to a harmless food as if it were a threat. The first time a person with food allergy is exposed to the food, no symptoms occur. But the body has been now been primed, and when the person eats the food again, an allergic response occurs.
An allergic reaction to food usually takes place within a few minutes to several hours after exposure to the allergen. The process of eating and digesting food and the location of immune cells involved in the allergic reaction process both affect the timing and location of the reaction.
If you are allergic to a particular food, you may experience some or all of the following symptoms: itching in your mouth or swelling; GI symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps and pain; hives or eczema; tightening of the throat and trouble breathing; and/or drop in blood pressure. The response may be mild, or in rare cases it can be associated with the severe and life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, which is a severe form of allergic reaction that may begin suddenly and may lead to death if not immediately treated. Anaphylaxis includes a wide range of symptoms that can occur in many combinations. Some symptoms are not life-threatening, but the most severe restrict breathing and blood circulation. Many different parts of your body can be affected: skin (itching, hives, redness, swelling); nose (sneezing, stuffy nose, runny nose); mouth (itching, swelling of lips or tongue); throat (itching, tightness, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness); chest (shortness of breath, cough, wheeze, chest pain, tightness); heart (weak pulse, passing out, shock); gastrointestinal (GI) tract (vomiting, diarrhea, cramps); and/or nervous system (dizziness or fainting).
If you have a food allergy, it is extremely important for you to work with your health care professional to learn what foods cause your allergic reaction.
Generally, you are at greater risk for developing a food allergy if you come from a family in which allergies—including food allergies and other allergic diseases such as asthma or eczema—are common. Having two parents who have allergies makes you more likely to develop food allergy than someone with one parent who has allergies.
If you have a life-threatening reaction to a certain food, your health care professional will show you how to avoid similar foods that may trigger this reaction. For example, if you have a history of allergy to shrimp, allergy testing may show that you are also allergic to other shellfish, such as crab, lobster, and crayfish. This is called cross-reactivity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food allergy affects 5% of children under 5 and 4% of older children in the United States, with similar rates for adults.
As the National Institutes of Health notes, the most common food allergens affecting Americans are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and crustacean shellfish. Currently, there is no way to prevent or cure food allergy. Food-allergic people must avoid certain foods and constantly guard against accidental exposures to hidden food allergens. Available medications can treat symptoms — which range from itching to a life-threatening drop in blood pressure — but only after the allergic reaction to food occurs.
Research and clinical studies into food allergies are focusing on how the immune systems of people with food allergy might be modified to eliminate their allergic reactions to food, examining food allergy-associated allergic diseases, such as eosinophilic esophagitis, a condition that occurs when eosinophils (a type of immune cell associated with allergic reactions) accumulate in the esophagus, and studying how genes, the environment and other allergic diseases may affect the development, persistence and severity of food allergy.
Recent research and studies are evaluating possible ways to treat people with food allergies, such as peanut allergy, by exposing them to the food allergen delivered as a liquid placed under the tongue, as a suppository or as part of a specialized skin patch.
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