Food allergies are on the rise, especially among children
One of the true pleasures of life is enjoying the taste, texture and smell of food. But for some of us, certain foods can make you sick, and in some cases, be life-threatening.
Food allergy is different from food intolerance. Food intolerance occurs when we have negative side effects, such as after eating dairy, known as lactose intolerance, or after drinking too much coffee.
Unlike food intolerance, a food allergy not only has negative side effects but it prompts certain foods to trigger our immune system. Our bodies recognize the food as foreign invader and move to stop it. Common symptoms of a food allergy include:
- Itching, especially in the mouth or throat
- Swelling in the lips, face, tongue or throat
- Trouble breathing, especially wheezing
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Nausea and vomiting
Food allergies affect about 4 percent of people under age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And that number is growing.
Many middle-aged adults, like me, can’t recall any schoolmates with food allergies when we were growing up. Some children with a food allergy have no family history of it. The CDC has reported an 18 percent increase in childhood food allergy from 1997 to 2007.
The reason for the increase isn’t clear. But there are many theories, mainly coming from a focus on peanut allergies. One theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, is that when parents try to prevent their children’s infections or over-treat an infection during the first two years of a child’s life, they prevent the immune system from developing certain processes that would not reject certain foods, like peanuts.
Other theories include antioxidant and nutrient imbalances or using antacids that keep food protein intact longer. Then, the food enters the digestive system before it is completely broken down. This triggers the immune system to mount an attack. Food processing, such as roasting, instead of boiling, also makes an allergic reaction to peanuts more likely.
Food allergies require further study, and researchers are currently examining several possibilities for reducing and detecting food allergies, including:
- The effects of asthma and other factors that can increase the risk of serious consequences from a food allergy.
- More reliable laboratory tests when the normal skin-blood antibody tests do not find a cause.
- Whether breast-feeding beyond six months prevents food allergies and other allergic conditions.
- Whether restricting a mother’s diet during pregnancy or during breast-feeding prevents food allergies.
- Safe and effective preventative therapy, so you would not have to avoid eating the food that causes symptoms.
Trained health care professionals know how to diagnose a food allergy and make reasonable judgments on which foods to avoid and how to treat allergic reactions.
Some allergic reactions are life threatening. The most severe form produces a reaction called anaphylaxis, which causes an acute drop in blood pressure, increased pulse rate, and difficulty breathing. Those who are considered at risk for life-threatening reactions should carry an epinephrine (adrenaline) auto-injector device that can quickly stop a serious reaction.
Food allergies are manageable. It takes education about what could contaminate a meal with a food allergen. It takes vigilance to read labels on food containers. And patience, as with any situation, is needed with those who need to learn about food allergy.
Some resources for more information about food allergy include the following websites:
About the Author
Dr. Joel Klein specializes in immunology and allergy at Advocate Condell Medical Center and Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. His philosophy of care: “I approach my patients in a thoughtful and considerate manner. I want to be sure that I have listened carefully, explained all options thoroughly, and answered any questions clearly.”