All About Food Allergies: Symptoms and Treatment

Approximately 32 million Americans have food allergies, with 200,000 people requiring emergency medical care each year from a reaction. With the number of people with peanut allergies alone quadrupling between 1997-2010, there is a need to bring attention to this major health issue affecting the lives of children and adults globally.
What is a food allergy?

A food allergy occurs when your immune system overreacts to a harmless food protein – an allergen – and triggers an immune response to attack those proteins.  Called an allergic reaction, this response can vary unpredictably from mild to severe, and even be life-threatening.  

Food allergies are not the same as food intolerances, with an intolerance taking place in the digestive system because of one’s inability to properly breakdown the food. A food allergy, however, involves the immune system. If you have a food allergy, your immune system identifies the allergen as an invader and overreacts by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies travel throughout the body, releasing chemicals that cause a reaction. 

What does an allergic reaction look like?

Symptoms from a food allergy can develop within a few minutes to two hours after eating the food. The most common symptoms include: 

  • Tingling or itching of the mouth
  • Hives, itching or eczema on the skin
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, and throat
  • Wheezing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting

Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. Symptoms can affect several areas of the body, including: 

  • Constriction and tightening of the airways
  • Swollen throat or sensation of lump in your throat with difficulty breathing
  • Severe drop in blood pressure
  • Rapid pulse
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or loss of consciousness

Emergency treatment is critical for anaphylaxis. Once the reaction starts, the drug epinephrine is the only effective treatment and must be injected within minutes of the symptoms. You must also dial 911 and request emergency help immediately after injecting with epinephrine. 

What are the top 9 common food allergens?

The top 9 common food allergens include:

  • Milk
  • Egg
  • Peanut
  • Tree Nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Fish
  • Crustacean shellfish
  • Sesame

Effective January 1, 2023 sesame was added as the ninth major food allergen. These allergens account for 90 percent of all food allergies and US law requires that foods or ingredients containing one of these allergens must have the name of the allergen source on its label.

How can you diagnose a food allergy?

Before any test, a detailed clinical history must be done to assess the patient’s reaction and determine if it is consistent with a food allergy. If a diagnosis is suspected, more objective testing follows. 

Skin prick tests and blood tests can determine whether a person has a food allergy. A skin test places a diluted extract of the suspected food on a patch of skin, observing signs of redness or swelling which would signify a reaction. A blood test can measure the actual presence of food specific IgE antibodies, but these more detailed tests take longer than a rapid skin test. 

Can you treat a food allergy?
While avoidance is commonly thought of as the only way to “manage” a food allergy, there is another option to go beyond avoidance and reach food freedom: the Tolerance Induction Program (TIP) at Southern California Food Allergy Institute. 

Unlike other therapies, such as OIT (Oral Immunotherapy), TIP uses trillions of data points to create customized treatment plans for each child. Their allergies are mapped out to form an individualized program that builds tolerance to the unique proteins each child is allergic to, all before introducing their most anaphylactic allergen. This ensures patient safety, and over time, alters their immune system to not react to their allergens. 

To date, TIP has treated thousands of children with a 99% success rate, giving people a life of food freedom where they can eat whatever they want, whenever they want, without fear of reaction. While not a cure, TIP offers true food freedom for anyone with food allergies.