Suffering from a true food allergy can not only be uncomfortable and inconvenient, it can be scary.
True food allergies are different from non-allergic food intolerances. Food intolerances are often limited to the digestive-system—like an upset stomach stemming from a lactose intolerance.
A food allergy is actually an immune-system response. When certain foods are eaten, the body mistakenly sees them as if they were harmful pathogens. The body responds by trying to fight the invading food, and this response results in the symptoms we associate with an allergic reaction.
The most common foods that cause allergic reactions are peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans and almonds), shellfish, dairy and wheat. But you can have an allergic reaction to any food.
Common symptoms of a true food allergy include:
- Itching in your mouth and/or swelling of the lips
- Vomiting, diarrhea or cramps
- Hives or some other form of rash
- Tightening of the throat and trouble breathing
- Drop in blood pressure
Medications may help reduce relatively minor allergic reactions, like mild rashes. But a major allergic reaction can send your entire body into shock, also called anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. Anaphylactic shock can obstruct breathing and shut down oxygen flow to vital organs of the body, including the brain.
Food allergies can be challenging to live with because until recently, the best way to manage a food allergy has been to avoid that food, or entire food category, altogether. In fact, depending on your medical history and the severity of your allergy, your doctor may still recommend avoidance as the best course of action.
People with severe food allergies may be advised to carry an EpiPen with them at all times. EpiPens are small automatic-injection devices that contain epinephrine (also called adrenaline).
EpiPens can be used to self-administer epinephrine in the event of an unforeseen, serious allergic reaction. If a major allergic reaction occurs, emergency medical care must be sought immediately, even if you’ve used an EpiPen.
However, a new approach to food allergy treatment is being pioneered in a partnership between Sutter Health and Stanford Children’s Health. In this approach, doctors work to desensitize people with severe allergies by carefully and slowly exposing them to small amounts, under medical supervision.
This advanced care, which is currently happening at California Pacific Medical Center, is giving hope to families who have had their lives put on hold because of serious food allergies.