Understanding food allergies and intolerances

Certain foods — namely nuts, shellfish and strawberries — seem to cause most acute allergic reactions. If you're allergic, their effect usually is apparent within a short time of eating them.

Understanding food allergies and intolerances

Knowing the effects of food allergies

If you're highly sensitive, even touching a surface containing trace amounts of the food can overwhelm your body, causing severe allergy symptoms.

  • Peanuts are particularly lethal and the leading cause of food-allergy fatalities.
  • Their effect is compounded because peanut proteins are found in unlikely places, such as potato chips, hot chocolate, spaghetti sauce, egg rolls and ice cream.
  •  A scratchy throat, itchy mouth, vomiting, stomach cramps, hives, rash and swelling of the face, hands, feet or genitals may all be signs of an allergic reaction.
  • If it’s severe, breathing difficulties and a systemic breakdown (called anaphylactic shock) can develop within minutes, a true medical emergency.

Food allergies vs. intolerances

A second form of food sensitivity is better termed a "food intolerance" as no histamine is involved and antihistamines and allergy shots won't help.

  • Intolerances produce a wide variety of symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, congestion, bloating and diarrhea.
  • Because symptoms may appear as long as three days after eating the food, finding the culprits can be tough.
  • The usual suspects are dairy, eggs, corn, gluten and citrus.
  • Doing a food elimination diet is a good way to ferret out troublemakers.
  • The process takes about three weeks.
  • Begin by eliminating the following for a week: dairy products, eggs, gluten (wheat, pasta, barley, oats and rye), corn and citrus.
  • If you feel better and chronic symptoms improve, then you probably do have some food intolerances.
  • Return one food group every three days, noting if symptoms reappear. At the end of the three-week reintroduction period, you should have a good idea of the dietary culprit (or culprits) behind your symptoms.

Preventing and treating allergic reactions

The best treatment is prevention, so try to avoid foods that cause symptoms.

  • Highly allergic people may take antihistamines as a preventive before dining out, for example, but this may dampen early warning signs of a bad reaction.
  • If you are prone to severe reactions, such as from peanuts, you will need to carry epineph­rine (adrenaline) with you to give yourself a shot at the first sign of trouble.
  • The drug is sold by prescription as an EpiPen. You should also have an antihistamine on hand.
  • With severe reactions, every minute counts:  you may not have time to wait for an ambulance.

The most important thing regarding food allergies and food intolerances is to understand what foods can give you a reaction. If you are concerned about possible allergies, talk to your doctor.

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