What exactly is a food allergy, anyway?
A food allergy is when the body’s immune system has an abnormal response, or overreacts, to a protein in food. This reaction could range from mild to severe and may include hives, itchy and/or red skin, nausea, vomiting, nasal congestion, swelling of lips or tongue, shortness of breath and anaphylaxis.
Food allergies are different than intolerances and sensitivities.
Again, allergies are a response of the immune system in reaction to a protein. This is different from a food intolerance or sensitivity which involves the digestive system’s response to a food component. A great example is lactose intolerance. This is a condition in which the digestive system has trouble breaking down a type of sugar found in dairy products. This involves neither the immune system or a protein so it is not an allergy.
No amount of a food allergen is safe to consume.
With a food intolerance, the amount of food consumed can affect how the body will respond. For example, someone with lactose intolerance may be able to put a splash of milk in their coffee without a problem, but may be in pain if they have a large ice cream cone. With a food allergy, no amount of food is acceptable. Don’t let anyone tell you “one bite isn’t going to hurt”. Even cross contamination is a concern.
Food allergies can develop at any time.
Food allergies can pop up anytime during the lifespan. You may safely eat a certain food for decades and then all of a sudden develop an allergy. It is true that some children do “grow out of” some food allergies. This is more common with milk, eggs, soy and wheat, but less common with peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
Some food allergies aren't worse than others.
There’s a conception that peanut allergies are more serious or dangerous than other food allergies. This is not necessarily true. A fatal reaction can happen with any kind of food allergy. Also, reactions to allergies are unpredictable. There’s no such thing as a mild allergy, just a mild reaction. Just because you had a mild reaction previously, doesn’t mean that’s how your body will always respond. For example, someone with a shellfish allergy may have a mild reaction (slightly itchy or red skin) when consuming the food once, and then have a more severe, potentially even fatal reaction (anaphylaxis) when exposed at a different time. It is not true that the reactions will get worse with every exposure – every reaction is going to be different and there’s no way to predict what’s going to happen.
Just because you tested positive for a food allergy, doesn’t mean you have it.
This last one throws a lot of people off. Yes, food allergies should be taken very seriously as they can be life-threatening. However, a lot of people are fearful of certain foods even when they don’t actually have an allergy to them.
The unfortunate truth, is that both blood tests and skin prick tests have a 50-60% false positive rate. That means that at least half of food allergy diagnoses, when based solely on skin prick or blood tests, are incorrect. Make sure you’re seeing a provider that is taking into account your history including signs and symptoms after eating the foods before providing you with an official diagnosis. An oral food challenge is sometimes done when it is uncertain if the food allergy actually exists or not. This is a much more accurate way of diagnosing food allergies.
For more information, including how to live with food allergies, go to: foodallergy.org