Food for thought: How to get help with your food allergies

By Aisha Langford

Food allergies

Food allergies are no small matter. Up to 15 million adults suffer from this type of allergy, and severe reactions bring 200,000 Americans to the emergency room each year to be treated.

A food allergy is an immune response to eating specific foods or food additives. Common symptoms of an allergic reaction include hives, skin rashes, stomach pain or nausea, and swelling of the throat and face after eating certain foods. Although the immune system normally protects you from germs, in people with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful.

"Food allergies cause immediate reactions and hypersensitivity, usually within minutes or up to one hour after the exposure," says Dr. Jeffrey Factor, an allergy and immunology physician with Connecticut Asthma and Allergy Center in Hartford.

About 90 percent of allergic reactions to food are caused by the following foods:

  • Cow's milk.
  • Eggs.
  • Fish.
  • Peanuts.
  • Shellfish.
  • Soy.
  • Tree nuts (e.g., walnuts).
  • Wheat.

Testing for food allergies

See a doctor if you experience symptoms shortly after eating certain foods. At your visit, the doctor will start by asking you for a detailed health history, and then he or she will give you a skin or blood test to confirm the food allergy.

Skin tests and blood tests are typically covered by health insurance if the doctor recommends the tests. For the skin test, the doctor will squeeze small drops of a liquid food extract -- one for each food in question -- on the skin and lightly prick the area to see if there's an allergic reaction. This could look like a raised bump with redness around it, similar to a mosquito bite, and may appear within 20 minutes.

Blood tests used by health care providers measure the presence of IgE antibodies to specific foods. IgE is the short term for "immunoglobulin E" and is produced in your blood when your body is experiencing an allergic reaction.

 Many people label food intolerances or sensitivities as a food allergy. However, these are not true allergies, notes Dr. Julie McNairn, an allergy and immunology physician with Asthma and Allergy Associates in Ithaca, New York. For example, celiac disease and sensitivity to dairy products are not true food allergies.

There are other tests on the market such as IgG tests, or "food sensitivity tests," which are different from the IgE tests. Most health insurance providers do not cover IgG tests because they are not a meaningful way to diagnosis a food allergy. If you order this type of test from a direct-to-consumer company, expect to pay out of pocket.

Managing food allergies

At this time, there are no medications to manage food allergies. The best option is to totally avoid the food. Some patients with severe food allergies must carry an EpiPen (epinephrine) at all times.  Epinephrine must be prescribed by a health care provider and is designed for people who have life-threatening allergies caused by certain foods, insect bites and stings, or other triggers.

During an allergic reaction, epinephrine quickly works to improve breathing. It can also elevate a dropping blood pressure, reverse hives, and reduce swelling of the throat, lips and face. An EpiPen is typically covered by health insurance.

Another emerging technique is desensitization. The concept works by exposing the patient to his or her food trigger (for example, peanuts) in small doses over time as a way to desensitize the immune system to that specific food. In theory, desensitization can cure the patient from his or her food allergy. A qualified health care provider, such as an allergy and immunology doctor, should perform this technique.

"This method is being studied in clinical trials, but some health insurance companies are starting to cover this method in clinical practice because it seems to work well in many patients," says Factor.

Other clinical trials are testing patches that can be worn on the skin to make food allergy reactions less severe. Potential vaccines for food allergies are also being tested, but none are ready for clinical use.

Food allergies are serious. If you have one, always ask about food options when not eating at home. Read food labels carefully, and always carry your EpiPen in case you're exposed to trigger foods.

For more information about food allergies, visit Medline Plus, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, or the CDC