In this article, we will explore some of the most common signs of food allergies that you should be aware of. Understanding these symptoms could potentially save your life or the life of someone you love.

Food allergies are a growing concern in the United States, affecting approximately 32 million people.

An allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless food protein as harmful and launches an attack against it. This can lead to various symptoms ranging from mild itching to life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Unfortunately, many people don’t realize they have a food allergy until they experience a severe reaction.

What is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy is when your body has an adverse reaction to a specific food or ingredient. This can range from a mild reaction, such as an itchy mouth or hives, to a severe reaction, such as difficulty breathing or swelling of the throat.

There are two types of reactions that can occur: immediate and delayed. Immediate reactions usually happen within minutes to hours after eating the offending food and can be life-threatening. Delayed reactions usually happen hours to days after eating the food and are often less severe.

Common Allergens

 Allergens may vary from person to person, but they are mostly associated with foods that contain certain proteins, among other compounds.

Here’s a list of common food allergies:

1. Nuts: peanuts, almonds, walnuts, etc.

Ground nuts like peanuts and tree nuts like walnuts and almonds, among others, are common allergens often associated with severe life-threatening reactions like anaphylaxis.

Nut allergies occur when your immune system overreacts to the proteins in these nuts.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, tree nuts are among the 8 most common food allergens affecting children and adults.

Different kinds of tree nuts in wooden bowls

While it’s easy to avoid nuts themselves, nuts are often present in most foods, so you should carefully go through the ingredient list of any product you’re unsure of.

Cross-contamination can also occur when a certain food is prepared or packed at the same pace as nuts.

That said, an allergy to one type of nut doesn’t directly qualify as a nut allergy to a different kind of nut. You should always monitor your intake to be sure what kinds of nuts cause you allergies.

Signs of Food Allergies in Nuts

  • Swollen lips
  • Skin rash
  • Hives o the skin
  • Runny nose
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tingling sensation in the mouth or throat, or a feeling of tightness in the throat

Common nuts that can cause allergies

  • Pecans
  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Chestnuts
  • Hazel nuts
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Pistachios
  • Hickory nuts
  • Walnuts

2. Seeds: sesame, sunflower, etc.

Eating seeds can also result in allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. The most common known seed allergy is sesame seeds. Research also shows that those with sesame allergies are also often allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.

According to a 2010 study, 0.1 percent of the general population may have seed allergy.

Common signs of food allergy in sesame

  • Itching
  • Hives or rash
  • Nasal congestion
  • Swelling in the lips, mouth, throat, and around the eyes
  • Wheezing 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal pain and discomfort
  • Dizziness

Mustard seed is another allergen that, even though rare, can be more severe than that of sesame seeds. Other seeds that may also result in allergies include sunflower seeds and poppy seeds, 

3. Fish: tuna, salmon, shrimp, etc.

While most people don’t have a problem digesting fish, there are some who are allergic to it. The symptoms of a fish allergy can range from mild (hives, itching, and swelling) to life-threatening (trouble breathing, throat swelling, and drop in blood pressure). If you think you might be allergic to fish, it’s important to see an allergist to get tested.

There are two types of fish allergies: IgE-mediated and non-IgE-mediated. IgE-mediated reactions happen when your body produces antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) in response to a protein in fish. These reactions are usually mediated by the immune system and can be severe.

Non-IgE-mediated reactions don’t involve the production of IgE antibodies. They’re often delayed, and the symptoms are typically less severe than IgE-mediated reactions.

4. Shellfish: crab, lobster, oysters, etc.

Most people love seafood, but what they may not realize is that shellfish are one of the most common food allergens. Even trace amounts of shellfish can cause a serious allergic reaction for those with a shellfish allergy.

The risk can even be higher if you have conditions like asthma, allergic reactions to small amounts of shellfish, a strong family history of allergy, or a previous history of food anaphylaxis.

Signs of food allergies in shellfish

Symptoms of a shellfish allergy can vary from person to person but usually include

  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • In severe cases, anaphylaxis. If you have a shellfish allergy, it is important to always carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you in case of accidental exposure.

There are two types of shellfish: crustaceans and mollusks. Crustaceans (such as crab, lobster, shrimp, and prawns) and mollusks/bivalves (such as clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, snails, octopus, squid, abalone).

Like nuts and seeds, if you are allergic to one type of shellfish, you could easily consume other types of shellfish. However, some people with shellfish allergies will have to avoid all types of shellfish.

5. Wheat: found in breads, pasta, cereals, and many other foods.

Variety of breads on an old wooden table

Wheat is a common grain consumed worldwide. It’s also present in most foods you’re like to find in the store. However, for anyone with wheat energy, this grain can cause various side effects.

A wheat allergy occurs when the body produces antibodies against the proteins (mainly gluten) in wheat, causing allergic reactions.

This can occur whether you’re eating a 100% wheat product like wheat bread or food containing wheat as an ingredient. In some cases, simple things like inhaling wheat flour can also result in an allergic reaction.

Wheat allergy is mainly present within minutes to hours of consuming wheat and wheat products.

Signs of food allergies in wheat

  • Itching and swelling in the mouth and throat
  • Nose congestion
  • Hives or skin rash
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Indigestion, bloating, and gas
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache

Common foods with wheat protein include:

  • Bread crumbs
  • Bran
  • Bulgur
  • Einkorn
  • Couscous
  • Durum, durum flour
  • Farina
  • Sprouted wheat
  • Kamut
  • Farro
  • Semolina
  • Wheat berries
  • Wheat bran, germ, grass, malt, and starch

6. Eggs

Eggs are a common allergen and are often used in baking or as a binding agent. They can be found in cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, and many other desserts. 

Egg allergy is most common in children but can also affect adults. Symptoms of an egg allergy include itching, swelling, and hives. In severe cases, anaphylaxis may occur.

7. Dairy and dairy products

Dairy is another common food allergen, and many people are allergic to dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. This is due to the presence of casein, a protein in milk that triggers the immune system to react.

assorted dairy products on a whitewashed wood surface

Dairy allergies can cause a variety of symptoms, including gastrointestinal distress, skin reactions, and respiratory problems. 

If you have a dairy allergy, it’s important to avoid all dairy products and read labels carefully to make sure that you’re not accidentally consuming any dairy.

8. Mustard

Most people are familiar with the common food allergies like peanuts, gluten, and dairy. But did you know that mustard is also a common allergen?

Mustard is a member of the cabbage family and is related to both horseradish and wasabi. It’s used as a condiment on sandwiches and in many Asian dishes.

While most people can eat mustard without any problems, some may experience an allergic reaction. Symptoms of a mustard allergy can include hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the face, lips, or tongue. Like most allergens, severe cases can result in anaphylaxis.

Diagnosing Food Allergies  

Skin prick test

This is the most common and quickest way to test for multiple food allergies all at once.

To perform this test, the doctor or allergist will put a drop containing a specific food allergen on the back of your hand and then prick it. The site may seem like a mosquito bite.

If an allergic patch develops on the skin, the test is considered positive for the specific allergen. However, if the test is negative, you’re likely not allergic to that potential allergen.

Skin prick allergy to find out kind of allergy

Food allergy blood testing

Besides skin prick testing, blood testing is another effective method used to diagnose food allergies.

The test is used to measure a substance known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) in your blood. IgE is an antibody that the body produces, but higher than normal amounts mean you have allergies.

This test could, however, take longer- a week or more before the results are out.

For this test, a healthcare professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm and send it to the lab.

The first test that should be performed is a total IgE test which shows the total amount of IgE in your blood.

This is followed by a more specific test, often referred to as a specific IgE test, which shows how much IgE your body makes when exposed to a single allergen.

This test may, however, not always be accurate and can provide false positives or negatives. Depending on your history and symptoms, your doctor may order food allergy blood testing and a skin prick test or a skin prick test alone.

Oral food challenge

This is a highly accurate diagnostic test for food allergies. This test can, however, cause severe reactions, so it should always be done by a professional and in a well-equipped health facility.

Here one feeds on the suspected food in measured doses, starting with very small amounts and increasing in each step as the professional watches for any sign of a reaction.

If you have no symptoms by the end of the procedure, your doctor will rule out the food allergy. If there’s a reaction, the doctor will discuss with you further o how to go about it.

This test can sometimes be done in people with a known allergy to check whether the person has outgrown it.

Treatment for Food Allergies

a. Avoidance diet

While some allergies may improve with time, overall, most food allergies have no cure, and for this, the only way out is to avoid whatever food you could be allergic to. 

So if you suspect you have a food allergy, the first thing is to get a confirmatory test from your doctor, followed by avoiding that specific food.

b. Medications        

As mentioned above, allergies have no cure; however, active allergic reactions can be relieved with various medications like antihistamines, corticosteroids, and epinephrine, depending on the severity.

Antihistamines: reducing itching and congestion

Corticosteroids: Reduce swelling in the case of a severe reaction

Epinephrine: lifesaving medication that reverses symptoms of anaphylaxis.

It’s always important to have these emergency medications at home, including an epinephrine auto-injector.

Tips for dealing with food allergies

Read food labels carefully. Some allergens may contain unfamiliar names, so always seek clarification if need be

  • Cook your own meals from scratch
  • When eating out, communicate with a restaurant staff so they can watch out for cross-contamination
  • Avoid treats along the way
  • Avoid unlabeled or unpacked food
  • Master your symptoms so you can recognize them early
  • Know how to use an auto-injector

When to go to the ER for a food allergy

Without treatment, some cases of food allergies can become worse and life-threatening.  

Signs of food allergies that call for a visit to the doctor or ER include:

  • Difficult breathing
  • Throat swelling that constricts the airway
  • Chest tightness
  • Hives throughout the body
  • Burning and tingling sensation on the hands, feet, lips, and mouth

Final Thoughts

Food allergies can be life-threatening, and it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms. 

Some common signs include hives, swelling of the lips or tongue, vomiting, and difficulty breathing. 

If you or someone you know experiences these signs after eating a certain food, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.

Additionally, it’s crucial to read food labels carefully and avoid foods that may contain allergens if you have been diagnosed with a food allergy. 

By being aware of the signs of food allergies and taking necessary precautions, you can prevent serious health complications related to this condition.

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