The incidence of food allergy is on the rise. It is most often in babies and children but can appear at any age. Food allergy is caused by immune system overreacting to particular proteins in the foods. Eight foods are responsible for the majority of allergic reactions including cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.
Allergic reactions usually occur within 2 hours after ingestion. Common symptoms can involve skin (hives, swelling on face or body, itchiness), gut (nausea, belly pain, vomiting), throat (tightening, hoarseness, hacking cough), lung (shortness of breath, wheezing), heart (fast pulse, fainting, pale, turning blue) etc. Although most reactions are mild, anaphylaxis leading to fatality is possible.
The most important factor in diagnosing food allergy is the history. Many suspected food allergies are actually caused by other conditions such as food intolerance (for example: MSG symptom complex). Many questions may be asked: What food is suspected? How is the food cooked? How soon do the symptoms appear? What are the symptoms like? How are the symptoms treated and what is the response to the treatment? Skin prick tests and food specific serum IgE levels are often tested to help with the diagnosis. Oral food challenge in a closely monitored setting (usually in the allergist’s office) is the golden standard if the history is arbitrary.
At the moment, the only effective management of food allergy is strict avoidance of the culprit foods. When a reaction occurs, medications need to be administered based on the severity of the reaction. Your allergist will prescribe antihistamine for mild reactions and an epinephrine auto-injector to be used for anaphylaxis, and review an emergency action plan with you.
Although currently there is no cure for food allergies, researchers are actively working on food formulas and Chinese herbal medicine to desensitize people with food allergies. The Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Mount Sinai Hospital is the leading center in US for such research. For more information, go to http://icahn.mssm.edu/research/programs/jaffe-food-allergy-institute
Given the potential of having a fatal reaction, managing food allergy can be a daunting task and rouse significant anxiety. Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network website https://www.foodallergy.org/ delivers great resource to promote food allergy awareness and provide patient support.