By Leigha Faulkner
More than 15 million Americans have a food allergy. Additionally, the number of children with food allergies has increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to experts at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing. Despite the increase in incidence and awareness, food sensitivities and food allergies are commonly confused.
A food allergy activates the body’s immune system at the cellular level by targeting a harmless food protein as a threat and attacks it. This reaction can be life threatening with mild to severe symptoms including hives, nausea, trouble swallowing, chest pain, and loss of consciousness. The more common culprits include milk, eggs, various nuts, soybeans, wheat, fish, and shellfish.
“About a third of Americans believe they have a food allergy, but only about five percent of children and four percent of adults actually have a food allergy,” says Alison Pittman, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing.
Comparably, food sensitivities or intolerances, are much more common. Food intolerances affect considerably more people than allergies. One common food intolerance is lactose intolerance, which affects close to 50 million people in the U.S., according to the American Gastroenterological Association.
“A food sensitivity will cause a localized response such as a headache, nausea or other gastrointestinal symptoms,” notes Vicky Keys M.S.N, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing, in a recent article by Texas A&M Health Science Center about Food Allergy Awareness. While not life-threatening, food sensitivities and intolerances are uncomfortable and best managed through avoidance.
Symptoms of food allergies and sensitivities present similarly in both adults and children; however, children may communicate the symptoms differently, says Pittman. “For example, an adult may say their mouth is tingling, but children may say it itches or feels like something is poking [their] tongue or ‘I have bugs in my mouth.’”
Food allergies can be life threatening. For children especially, it is important to manage their environment. “One of the best things is to educate everybody who encounters the child,” says Pittman. “In school, it is important all the child’s teachers are made aware of the allergy.”
In response to Food Allergy Awareness Week, Keys provided a few safety tips for those with a food sensitivity or allergy.
Read food labels to make sure there are no traces of allergy-causing foods in the product.
Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace provides others a visual cue to known allergies.
Always carry an epi-pen, or similar brand of epinephrine auto-injector, as well as any other necessary allergy medicines. Become educated on how to properly use or administer all medications. For kids that are too young to use the auto-injector correctly, it is crucial for teachers and family friends to know how to activate it.
For anyone suspecting a food allergy, discuss a food allergy test with your doctor. Food allergy tests can involve skin pricks, blood tests, an oral food challenge, or trial elimination.