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Dr. Lauren S. Roman, Catskill Regional Medical Group, Primary Care Medical Director

Identifying, understanding and avoiding food allergies

Food allergies are reactions that our bodies have to certain foods. It is important to note that there are other types of reactions our bodies may have to certain foods other than allergies. However, true food allergies develop when the body’s immune system has an abnormal reaction to one or more proteins contained in a food. The most common such foods are dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts (such as almonds and cashews), fish and shellfish.

We are not born with food allergies; we develop them. We typically develop food allergies very early in life after an initial exposure to a food with a particular protein to which our body is allergic. That first exposure causes our immune system to build antibodies, and when we are exposed to that food again, the antibodies become active against it, and our body exhibits an allergic response.

The other types of reactions our bodies can have to foods include things like lactose intolerance, heartburn and other conditions of that nature. True allergic reactions to food can range from mild to severe and can even be fatal.

For example, a mild reaction can be something like a rash or hives that affect the skin, which we refer to as single-system involvement. More severe reactions often involve several systems in the body. Many people are familiar with the term anaphylaxis, which is a multi-system process that can have respiratory involvement, gastrointestinal involvement and cardiac involvement. Because these multiple systems are involved, someone experiencing anaphylaxis from a food allergy will experience a range of severe symptoms that can include difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, rapid heart rate and low blood pressure. Swelling of the tongue is also common with anaphylaxis, and the condition can ultimately lead to death if not acted upon quickly.

If you believe that you or your child may have a food allergy, discuss your concerns with your health care provider. I encourage anyone who has exhibited even a mild sign or symptom of food allergy to take advantage of the laboratory and skin tests that are out there to confirm if true food allergy exists. Between 20% and 30% of people report a food allergy in themselves or their children, but only 6% to 8% of children under the age of five, and just 3% to 4% of adults, will actually be diagnosed with a true food allergy. However, because food allergies can be accompanied by such potentially dangerous symptoms, it is far better to be safe rather than sorry.

If a food allergy is identified, your doctor may recommend a number of options. For potentially more severe cases, an epi-pen may be prescribed as a protective measure. Of course, as is often the case with maintaining overall health and wellness, preventive care goes a long way, so any food that triggers your allergic response should be avoided.

 

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