Written by Michele Wheat
It is important for all parents and those who interact with children regularly to be aware of common food allergens, the potential signs of an allergic reaction, and the treatment thereof. It is through this knowledge that adults in all capacities can best care for children that have a food allergy. Among the most common food allergies are eggs, milk, soy, tree nut, wheat, peanuts, fish, and shellfish. It is also important to recognize that any child can have an allergic reaction to any food; those listed are only common and it is not to say that other foods are not allergens. Food allergies may cause serious and fatal reactions. Recognizing the signs of a food allergy or an allergic reaction can be lifesaving.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Food Allergies
What are the Signs of a Food Allergy?
When an allergen is consumed, the body produces antibodies and reacts in a very similar way to the introduction of harmful or toxic substances. The antibodies work to fight the allergen and protect the body. When a person with a food allergy eats, touches, or breaths in an allergen, their body releases histamine. The release of histamine triggers the signs of an allergic reaction and may affect the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory system, dermis, or cardiovascular system.
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Common Symptoms of a food allergy include:
- Belly pain
- Trouble breathing
- Tightness in the throat
- Watery, itchy, or swollen eyes
- Red bumps or spots
- Dizziness, lightheadedness
Some confuse food intolerance with a food allergy. With some similar symptoms between the two, it is important to remember that a food intolerance does not impact the immune system. Intolerance occurs when a person's body cannot digest a food. Food intolerance is infrequently dangerous and is usually limited to indigestion, gas, and headaches, among other mild or moderate symptoms.
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What Happens to the Body During an Allergic Reaction?
Specific reactions vary, but there are some common physiological reactions to food allergens. In some cases, hives or a rash may develop on the skin. A reaction may occur within a few minutes or a few hours of exposure to the allergen and may vary in intensity with the possibility of spreading to more than one body part.
Belly pain or pain in the abdomen may also occur, as can vomiting and diarrhea. Lightheadedness and fatigue are also symptoms of an allergic reaction. In the most severe cases, a person may experience anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening. One may experience difficulty breathing and subsequently pass out.
Diagnosing a Food Allergy
Food allergies are often diagnosed by allergists, medical professionals specializing in allergies. A primary care physician may refer a patient to an allergist in order to have them test for and confirm a food allergy. When meeting with a doctor or allergist, it is important to know the symptoms experienced, how frequently reactions occur, the times between consuming the food and when the reaction begins, any medical conditions such as eczema and asthma.
Skin tests - In a skin test, a liquid extract of the allergen is placed on the skin. Reactions to the area of application and reported symptoms are monitored.
Blood tests - In a blood test, blood is extracted and checked for lgE antibodies.
Food challenge tests - In a food challenge, the allergen is consumed in a controlled and monitored environment. This is common when testing to see if a patent has outgrown a food allergy.
Treating a Food Allergy
Once a food allergy is diagnosed, you and your doctors can create a treatment plan. Avoidance is key and the first step for many with food allergies is to eliminate from their diet the allergen and foods that contain the allergen. It is important to read all food labels in order to make sure one doesn't accidentally consume food items that contain their allergen. Foods sold in the United States are required to specify on their food label any of the top eight food allergens. Depending on the resulting reaction and severity of the food allergy, a doctor might advise the use of an epinephrine auto-injector. Small but powerful, the epinephrine auto-injector is a prescription medication that can be administered to counter an allergic reaction. Easy to use, it is important that all those caring for, as well as capable children, know how to administer an epinephrine auto-injector in the event of anaphylaxis. Signs of anaphylaxis include:
- Swelling in the mouth
- Tightness in the throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Signs of distress in two or more body systems
In the event of an emergency allergic reaction, every second can make a difference. Calling 9-1-1 for emergency medical services can be life-saving.
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