This week (May 11-17) is Food Allergy Awareness Week, which scientists at the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) are leveraging to increase public awareness of food allergies as a serious and potentially life-threatening medical condition.
According to the TAMHSC, approximately fifteen million Americans have a food allergies and that metric is growing — having increased 50 percent among children between 1997 and 2011. Food allergies now affect one in 13 children, or two in every classroom, and there is currently is no cure. Scientists are working to find treatments to prevent sometimes life-threatening reactions (Anaphylactic shock) with ingestion, sometimes of minuscule amounts, of certain foods, but in the meantime, we’re left with vigilance and workarounds.
Actually, fewer than four percent of adults have a true food allergy, but many more do suffer from food intolerance or sensitivity — meaning they may start to feel unwell after eating a certain food, but don’t have life threatening Anaphylactic reactions. So how to determine if it’s a true allergy or a less serious foods sensitivity?
“A food sensitivity will cause a localized response such as a headache, nausea or other gastrointestinal symptoms,” says Vicky Keys, M.S.N., an assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing in a TAMHSC release. “It’s uncomfortable, but not life threatening.”
On the other hand, a true food allergy activates the body’s immune system at the cellular level and cause reactions that can be life-threatening. The body reacts to the food as if it were a foreign invader, triggering severe symptoms that may occur within one hour of ingesting the offending food — sometimes much more rapidly than that. Anaphylaxis is a potentially severe or life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur very quickly — as fast as within a couple of minutes of exposure to the allergen. The airway is often affected, resulting in tightness of the throat, chest tightness and difficulty breathing, that can also be accompanied by chest pain, low blood pressure, dizziness and headaches. Other common symptoms include hives, itching, flushing and swelling of the lips, tongue and roof of the mouth. Frequent food allergy culprits include milk, eggs, various nuts (including peanuts and peanut butter, soybeans, wheat, fish, and various shellfish.
A doctor can conduct a food allergy test to determine if reactions to foods are being caused by a true allergy and what particular food a patient is reacting to. Persons considering an allergy test or who suspect they may have a food intolerance or sensitivity should start keeping a detailed food diary in order to help determine the culprit, Ms. Keys suggests, noting that “Because there are multiple allergy tests, keeping a food diary can help you and your physician pinpoint what is causing your discomfort faster.”
Since any number of foods or food ingredients could potentially trigger a reaction, keeping a record of what you eat, the type of symptoms you experience, and the amount of time between ingestion and manifestation of symptoms can be very helpful to clinicians in making an accurate diagnosis, and in identifying which foods to avoid, which is key to managing sensitivity or intolerance symptoms.
If it is determined that you have a true food allergy, Ms. Keys recommends the following strategies to take charge of your safety:
1. Read food labels.
Read the label to make sure there are no traces of your allergen present in the product. This strategy is important even if you have a food sensitivity or intolerance so you can avoid the trigger ingredients.
“Many companies will post if there are other ingredients that the product could have come into contact with,” notes Ms. Keys. “There are several ingredients that a single item could have encountered. Even a small trace of your allergen could cause a potential reaction.”
2. Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace.
Because you can’t control the environment around you, exposure to harmful allergens could happen at any time. Wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace could help others with first aid measures if you have a life-threatening allergic reaction.
3. Carry an Epi-Pen or other necessary allergy medicines.
If your health care provider determines you do have a food allergy, they may prescribe you with an EpiPen (epinephrine) Auto-Injector and demonstrate how to use it. The product package insert also,provides instructions. Persons with food allergies should never be without their allergy medicines and an epi-pen, in case they have a severe allergic reaction.
Ms . keys advises making sure someone in one’s home, work or school knows how to use the epi-pen incase the allergic individual is unable to activate it themselves.
“It’s extremely important to immediately seek medical help if you experience a food reaction, even if you’ve used your epi-pen,” warns Ms. Keys. “Anaphylactic shock is life-threatening and can happen very quickly.”
Texas A&M Health Science Center
Texas A&M Health Science Center