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Food allergies

Photo of a girl blowing her nose.

Do eggs make you itch? Does soy make you sneeze? Are peanuts a serious scare for you? Well, you are not alone. Millions of people in the United States have food allergies. That means their bodies react to a food as though it's something dangerous. Some common food allergies are to peanuts, tree nuts (such as almonds and cashews), milk, seafood, wheat, soy, and eggs, but there are other types of food allergies, too.

You may have been born with a food allergy, or you may develop it over time. Either way, you can learn ways to lead a safe, healthy, and fun life with a food allergy. Here are some key points about food allergies.

  • An allergic reaction can happen right away or a few hours after eating the food.
  • A reaction doesn't necessarily happen the first time you eat a food.
  • You can have a mild reaction to a food, but then the next time you eat it, you might have a more dangerous reaction.
  • Some people can become sick even from just touching or breathing in a certain food.

Keep reading to learn more about food allergies, including:

Signs of food allergies arrow top

No matter what food you are allergic to, you likely will have some of the following symptoms from the food:

  • A rash
  • A stuffy nose or sneezing
  • Swelling of your face, lips, or tongue
  • Tightness in your throat
  • A hoarse voice
  • Wheezing or a cough
  • Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain
  • Diarrhea

If you have symptoms of a food allergy, you should see a doctor. Make sure not to eat the food you think you are allergic to unless the doctor says you can.

Diagnosing a food allergy arrow top

To figure out whether you have a food allergy, a doctor will do some or all of the following:

  • Ask you questions. These can include questions like how long after you ate the food you had the reaction. These also can include questions about whether anyone else in your family has a food allergy because that makes it more likely that you might have one, too.
  • A physical exam. This would include things like listening to your lungs.
  • Ask you to keep a food record. You would write down what you ate in a journal or log and whether you had a reaction to it.
  • Suggest an elimination diet. You would stop eating a certain food and see if you stop having allergic reactions.
  • A skin prick test. The doctor would make a little scratch on your skin and drop in small amounts of a liquid version of the food to see if you have a reaction.
  • A blood test. The doctor might take some blood and send it to a lab to be checked for signs of allergies.
  • A food challenge test. You would eat some of the food to see if you had a reaction. This is only done in a doctor's office to make sure you are safe if you have a reaction.

Staying safe with food allergies arrow top

Some types of food allergies may go away on their own, but there is no cure yet for food allergies. If you have a food allergy, you should not eat that food. Here are some suggestions to help keep you safe:

  • Read food labels. Packages will have a special note, usually near the ingredients list. You can also check the ingredients list for anything you should avoid. Your doctor's office or a food allergy organization can give you a list of ingredients to avoid. And don't forget to check a product every time you buy it. Sometimes the food maker may change its ingredients.
  • Find out if the factory matters. If you are very sensitive, you may need to avoid a food just because it is made in the same factory as your allergic food. Ask your doctor about that.
  • Tell people who might need to know. Teachers, coaches, friends, and restaurant servers can help you stay safe if they know what foods you need to avoid.
  • Be prepared. Learn what to do in case you have a reaction.Some people with a food allergy need to have medicine nearby all the time. You may need an EpiPen to protect you in case you have a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis (say: an-uh-fuh-LAK-suhss). You might also consider wearing a medical identification bracelet, so other people know how to help you in an emergency.

Living with a milk allergy arrow top

Some people who think they have a milk allergy actually have lactose intolerance instead. If you have a milk allergy, you can take the same basic safety steps as other people with food allergies. You can also follow a few specific tips:

  • Some foods that have milk may be more obvious to you, like cheese, yogurt, and pudding. But other things may also have milk, such as rennet, casein, butter flavoring, whey, protein powders, and margarine.
  • Completely vegan foods will not have milk in them. (Vegan foods have no animal products in them at all.) Health food stores often have a good selection of vegan foods.
  • Products that say "milk-free" or "non-dairy" may still have some milk protein in them, so read the ingredients carefully.
  • If you are allergic to cow's milk, you probably also are allergic to milk from sheep and goats. You may also be allergic to soy milk.

Living with a peanut allergy arrow top

If you have a peanut allergy, you should follow the same general safety suggestions as people with all food allergies. Here are some additional tips for you:

  • People with peanut allergies often also are allergic to tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pecans. Allergies to sesame seeds or sesame oils are pretty rare, but people with peanut allergies may have those, too.
  • Nuts might be in some products that you might think would not have them. These include cereals, crackers, chocolates, energy bars, flavored coffees, frozen desserts, sauces, and even some artificial nuts.
  • If you can't eat peanuts, you most likely should not eat food that is made in a factory that has any nut products in it. Read labels for phrases like "produced in a facility that also processes nuts" and "produced on shared equipment with nuts or peanuts."
  • Some schools now have peanut-free zones. Ask your doctor about whether you should be sitting in one.
  • Be extra careful in certain kinds of restaurants. Some restaurants have a lot of nut products that can accidentally wind up touching your food. These include Chinese, Indian, and Thai restaurants, ice cream parlors, and bakeries.
  • Airplane travel can pose problems. Talk with your doctor and with the airline to discuss ways to protect your health. Some airlines will try to give you a peanut-free zone if you contact them in advance. And make sure to have an EpiPen with you on board.

Living with an egg allergy arrow top

If you have an egg allergy, you should follow the same safety suggestions as people with all food allergies. Here are some additional suggestions for you:

  • Eggs may be in some products that you might not think would have them. These include soups, pasta, mayonnaise, salad dressing, and bagels.
  • Some drinks may have egg in it, like root beer, lattes, and cappuccinos.
  • If you need to avoid eggs, vegan products are a good option.
  • Watch out for ingredients like albumin, Simplesse, or anything with the word "ovo" or "ova" in it, such as "ovalbumin."
  • Ask your doctor if you need to avoid vaccines that are made with egg proteins. Most vaccines should be fine, but make sure to mention your allergy just in case.

Living with a soy allergy arrow top

If you have a soy allergy, follow general allergy safety tips. And here are some tips specifically for you:

  • You need to avoid all soy and soybean products, including tofu and soy sauce.
  • Soy may be in products where you might not expect it, such as vegetable oil and natural flavorings. Watch out for ingredients like textured vegetable protein, lecithin, and MSG (monosodium glutamate).

Living with a wheat allergy arrow top

Wheat allergy is different from a disorder known as celiac disease, although people with both conditions need to avoid some of the same foods. You can learn more about celiac disease. Here are some tips if you have a wheat allergy:

  • Wheat products are found in many foods, sometimes in the form of a thickener. Foods that may have wheat include soy sauce, ketchup, meat substitutes, ice cream, and food starch.
  • If you have a wheat allergy, you may also have trouble with barley, oats, and rye.
  • Look for gluten-free foods. These often are made for people with celiac disease, but they also are wheat-free. Health food stores and some regular supermarkets have gluten-free products.

 

Content last reviewed November 05, 2013
Page last updated December 23, 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.

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