Do you know anyone with a food allergy? In our family, my mother has an allergy to nuts (all kinds of nuts). Whenever we go out to a restaurant or to someone’s home for dinner we have to ask that most important question: “Is this dish prepared with nuts?” If you’ve ever known someone with a food allergy this medical issue can often interfere with their lifestyle.
If you are an adult with food allergies, you will be glad to hear that truly severe reactions are quite rare. Still, statistics tell us that 3 or 4 out of every 100 adults have a food allergy.
The most common problem foods are peanuts and fish or shellfish. Food allergies are experienced by 7 out of every 100 children, but about half of them will outgrow their allergies by adulthood. For example, it is very common to grow out of an allergy to eggs, milk, wheat or soy. If you have an allergy in adulthood, however, it’s more than likely here to stay.
Intolerance or Allergy?
Most people know by adulthood that they are allergic to a particular food. If you are one of these people, you have probably seen a doctor who has confirmed the diagnosis either by testing your blood for certain chemicals or doing a skin test. For a skin test, the doctor will place a small amount of liquid containing the allergen on your skin and prick you. If the skin swells like a bug bite, you are definitely allergic.
If you haven’t had one of these tests or consulted a doctor about your suspected allergy, you may suffer from food intolerance. Often the symptoms of an allergy and intolerance are similar, such as an upset stomach or other digestive problems. However, there is one very important difference: intolerance merely causes discomfort, but an allergy can be dangerous. If you have intolerance for dairy products, for example, you may very well want to avoid these foods, but you won’t have to take the extra precautions that allergy suffers take.
Knowledge is Power
When it comes to food allergies, I tell my patients that knowledge is power. Some people will not grasp the threat that severe allergic reactions present to your health, so you have to take responsibility for avoiding trigger foods. Knowing what to do if you accidentally eat one of these foods is equally important. Here are some rules of thumb:
1) Know what you’re allergic to – This sounds silly at first, but foods often go by different names on food labels, so you need to learn how to spot the allergens. For example, milk protein may be called “casein”; peanuts may be called “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” and wheat may be referred to as “gluten”.
2) Carry an allergy kit – This is especially crucial to those with severe allergies. You should have an epinephrine shot, sterilizing swabs and antihistamines like Benadryl.
3) Spread the word – Wear a medical alert bracelet specifying what you are allergic to and don’t be shy about stating your dietary needs. You’re not being a picky eater; you’re preventing a medical emergency!
4) Know the signs – Call 911 if your throat or tongue swells quickly; if you experience wheezing or trouble breathing; if you have clammy skin or excessive sweating; or if you experience nausea or vomiting. You should stay at the emergency room for up to 4 hours after a severe reaction so they can treat you immediately if symptoms return.
5) Be smart at restaurants – Don’t be shy about asking exactly how a dish is prepared. For example, a sauce may contain cream or butter, or a dish may be garnished with chopped nuts. Many people carry a card they can give to the server and chef stating exactly what they cannot eat.
As with any medical condition, it always helps to enlist the help of the people around you. Friends and family should know what your challenges are and how to care for you if you have a severe reaction. More importantly, these people can provide support or a dose of humor when you get discouraged about always being on the lookout for allergens. Keep in mind that just a few precautions and a good attitude will help you live a full and healthy life despite your food allergies.