Allergies to Food

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Allergies to Food

Food allergies

A food allergy is an abnormal response to a food by your immune system. Normally, the immune system protects your health by defending the body against harmful bacteria and viruses. With a food allergy, the immune system identifies certain foods as harmful and triggers an allergic reaction when you eat them.

Food allergies are more common in children than adults. Food allergies are most common in people who have an inherited tendency to develop allergic conditions. These people are more likely to have asthma and other allergies.

Cereal allergies may appear in a baby when you begin to add cereal to the baby's diet. Children tend to outgrow many food allergies by age 3. The most common foods involved are cow's milk, eggs, nuts, shellfish, soy products, and wheat. Most people who have allergies to seafood, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts do not outgrow them.

Symptoms of food allergies can range from mild and annoying to severe and life-threatening. Symptoms of food allergies can begin right away or within a few hours and can include:

  • A severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), which can occur suddenly and quickly become life-threatening. Anaphylaxis can cause wheezing or difficulty breathing, rapid swelling of the throat or tongue, hives, nausea or vomiting, and faintness. In general, the sooner the reaction begins, the more severe it will be. Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you are having a severe allergic reaction.
  • Swelling and itching of the mouth, tongue, or throat.
  • Skin reactions, such as hives, angioedema, or atopic dermatitis.
  • Respiratory reactions, such as allergic asthma and allergic rhinitis.
  • Digestive system reactions, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, rectal itching, and colic.
  • Headaches.

You may be able to prevent food allergies by changing your diet and not eating the foods that you suspect are causing your symptoms. Do not eat these foods for 2 weeks. Add the foods back to your diet, one item at a time, to determine which food is causing problems. This can be done at home unless severe allergic reactions have occurred in the past, such as difficulty breathing or wheezing, facial swelling, itching of the lips or mouth, or hives. If this is the case, eating foods that you think may cause a severe reaction should be done only in a clinic or hospital setting under direct medical supervision.

Talk to your doctor or a dietitian before you remove a food from your diet for more than 2 weeks. An unbalanced diet can be harmful. A dietitian can help you change your diet to make sure you are getting proper nutrition.

Reactions to food

Some reactions to foods are not caused by allergies. Common causes of food reactions include:

  • Lactose intolerance. This is an inability to digest sugar (lactose) in dairy products because a person's body doesn't have the chemical (enzyme) that breaks down the sugar. Lactose intolerance causes stomach or intestinal cramps and diarrhea.
  • Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS). Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a seasoning that is often used in Asian cooking, may cause dizziness, sweating, ringing in the ears, and a feeling of faintness in some people shortly after they have eaten foods that contain MSG.
  • Wheat intolerance, such as celiac disease. Children are more likely than adults to have trouble digesting foods that contain wheat, such as bread, crackers, and cereal. These foods are likely to cause them to develop gas.
  • Food poisoning.
  • Digestive problems (gastrointestinal diseases).
  • Emotional problems or stress.

Talk to your doctor about a referral to an allergy specialist if you have food allergies.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerH. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last RevisedApril 29, 2011

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