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Diagnosing and treating food allergies

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One out of every three people says they have a food allergy or they modify the family diet for a family member who has one. Dr. Kevin Campbell talks about how common food allergies are and how to diagnose and treat them.

Five percent of children have clinically proven allergic reactions to foods. In teens and adults, food allergies occur in about 4 percent of the total population. 

According to Food Allergy Research & Education, there are more than 200,000 emergency room visits a year for food allergy reactions.

According to a nationwide study, one food that affects nearly seven million Americans is fish.

But experts say there is a difference between food allergies and food intolerance. A food allergy is an immune system reaction to a protein in the food. The food triggers the immune system to produce a protein called IgE and releases cells called mast cells. These result in the release of substance that causes symptoms of the allergy. Food intolerance is far more common can involve GI upset and is not nearly as serious. 

In adults, the foods that most often trigger allergic reactions include fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, such as walnuts. Problem foods for children can include eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and wheat.

Symptoms of food allergies:

  • Itching or swelling in your mouth
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps and pain
  • Hives or eczema
  • Tightening of the throat and trouble breathing
  • Drop in blood pressure 

How to diagnose a food allergy 

Your health care provider may use a detailed history, elimination diet, and skin and blood tests to diagnose a food allergy.

The allergist will take a thorough medical history, followed by a physical examination. Patients are asked about the foods they eat, the frequency, severity and nature of symptoms, and the amount of time between eating a food and any reaction.

Allergy skin tests may determine which foods, if any, trigger allergic symptoms. In skin testing, a small amount of extract made from the food is placed on the back or arm. If a raised bump or small hive develops within 20 minutes, it indicates a possible allergy. If it does not develop, the test is negative. It is uncommon for someone with a negative skin test to have an IgE-mediated food allergy.

Treatment

When you have food allergies you must be prepared to treat an accidental exposure. Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace, and carry an auto-injector device containing epinephrine. People with food allergies should always carry an auto-injectable epinephrine device to be used in the event of an anaphylactic reaction. Symptoms of anaphylaxis may include difficulty breathing, dizziness or loss of consciousness. If you have any of these symptoms in the context of eating, use the epinephrine auto-injector and immediately call 911.

But experts say the best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid the food you are allergic to.  After you and your health care provider have identified the foods to which you are sensitive, you must remove them from your diet.

 

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