Food allergies are quite common in the United States. In fact, over 50 million Americans are allergic to nuts, milk, shellfish, or various other foods. While some food allergies can be mild, others can be more severe or even life-threatening.
Food sensitivities are a different phenomenon from true food allergies. True food allergies are caused by an IgE-mediated cascade of inflammation that can lead to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Food intolerances don’t follow this path, and, in most cases, they don’t have an immunological trigger. Food sensitivities are not usually life threatening and don’t require management with epinephrine or antihistamines.
Here are some of the most common food allergies and how they’re treated.
The most common food allergies
If you have an allergy to any of the foods listed below, take careful measures to avoid exposure to them in order to prevent an adverse reaction. If your allergy is particularly severe, ask your doctor if you’ll need to carry an epinephrine injector (generic, EpiPen, AuviQ) with you in the case of anaphylactic shock, something that can be life-threatening.
Ninety percent of all food allergies are caused by the following items:
- Eggs. An allergy to eggs typically affects children–it’s estimated that up to 2% of children in the US are allergic to eggs. However, most children “outgrow” this allergy by age 16. Egg allergy is treated by avoiding eggs, which means you’ll need to carefully check the ingredients in processed and store-bought foods if your child has an egg allergy.
- Milk. Milk allergy can affect both kids and adults, although it’s most common in children. Although many confuse the two, a milk allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance. Like all food allergies, milk allergy is treated by avoiding products containing milk.
- Peanuts. Peanut allergies have been on the rise over the last few decades. Today, 2.5 percent of children are thought to have a peanut allergy. Peanut allergies are especially notorious because of their association with anaphylaxis, a severe and often fatal allergic reaction. If you or your child has an allergy to peanuts, it’s crucial to avoid peanuts in any form.
- Tree nuts and seeds. Like peanuts, tree nuts (which include almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecan, hazelnut, macadamia nuts) can lead to anaphylactic shock. Seeds can also be a problem–the most common seed allergy is sesame, and as of January 1, 2023, the FDA will require sesame to be listed as an allergen on food labels. As with a peanut allergy, avoid all products containing sesame seeds and tree nuts. Read labels carefully.
- Fish. Many fish allergies arise only in adulthood. Treating a fish allergy involves avoiding the type of fish you’re allergic to.
- Shellfish. Seven million Americans are allergic to shellfish, which include shrimp, crabs, mussels, clams, lobster, and oysters. Like all food allergies, a shellfish allergy can range from mild to severe and is treated by avoiding shellfish.
- Wheat. Wheat is one of the most common childhood allergies that the majority outgrow. A wheat allergy isn’t the same as gluten sensitivity or celiac disease; the latter two don’t have the potential for a serious or life-threatening reaction. A wheat allergy is treated by avoiding all forms of wheat, including bread, pasta, and baked goods. Be sure to check the labels of store-bought products, since many processed foods like sauces and canned soups contain added wheat.
- Soy. Soy allergy is common in infants and young children. It can trigger anaphylaxis. It’s treated by avoiding all soy-containing products (soy sauce, tofu, and soy milk, etc.).
One additional treatment option for milk and egg allergy involves building tolerance via slow introduction of milk and egg-containing foods, under the guidance of an Allergist. This treatment is usually based on test results and history.
Another similar treatment, oral immunotherapy to food allergens, can decrease risk of anaphylaxis via the ingestion of specific amounts of the food over time. This also requires the close supervision of an Allergist.
Both treatments have an increased risk of triggering anaphylaxis, so they should never be started on your own without strict instructions from a physician.
Allergies, a relatively new phenomenon, can be a serious problem. By keeping yourself informed about the various food triggers, you can keep an eye out for any adverse effects in yourself or your children and know how to handle things if need be.
Written by Natan Rosenfeld