Allergist Explains What Happens to Your Body If You Have a Food Allergy

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In the United States, 32 million people live with a life-threatening food allergy. With that number, there has been a 377% increase in anaphylactic food reactions. The only way to prevent this type of response is to learn more about the allergy.
Learning about what happens to your body when you develop a food allergy is a big part of understanding the problem and the reactions that may occur. The other essential aspect of learning is how to prevent an episode and how to treat the allergy.

Before explaining those things, however, it is crucial to know the signs and symptoms of a food allergy. And, you should know how your doctor will form a diagnosis.

Signs and Symptoms of a Food Allergy

The symptoms and signs of an allergy to food are different for everyone. The differences are based on the severity of the allergy and the amount of the food consumed. Some of the signs and symptoms include:

  • tingling mouth or tongue
  • itching in or around the mouth
  • Hives
  • Itching and eczema
  • Swollen lips, face, tongue or throat
  • Wheezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Stomach or abdomen pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting or feeling lightheaded and dizzy
  • Anaphylaxis (which could lead to death)

What is Anaphylaxis? And Why is it Life-Threatening?

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can cause death. This reaction can cause the airways to tighten and constrict. Your throat could become swollen, making it difficult or impossible to breathe.

Additionally, you could experience shock, a severe drop in blood pressure, or a rapid pulse during an anaphylaxis reaction. It can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, or even a loss of consciousness.

Discussing this reaction in depth is important because it is such a severe reaction. Anyone with a food allergy could potentially experience anaphylaxis, and knowing the severity can help with prevention and understanding.

How Doctors Issue a Food Allergy Diagnosis

Becoming diagnosed with an allergy can be difficult, especially for children. Since children experience so many bodily changes, doctors may want to check for other issues first. Some doctors may even chalk the reactions up to being only eczema or acid reflux until testing is done.

This is not always the case, however, and you may find that your diagnosis is relatively easy. When you first begin thinking you may have developed a food allergy, you should take notes. The notes should include what your reaction was, what foods you had been eating, and how long it took for the response to ease up.

Take notes like this each time you react. You may be able to narrow down the exact food pretty quickly or, at the very least, you’ll be able to narrow it down to a couple of foods. When you see your doctor, go over the notes with them.

From there, your doctor will likely order an allergy test done by an allergist to be sure that it is the culprit. There are a couple of different types of allergy tests, but the most common one is skin testing, which involves pricking and puncturing the skin of your back or forearm with various allergens. This test will show how severe the allergy is, along with just confirming that there is an allergy at all.

With the prick and puncture method, a raised bump will appear on the area where a specific substance was poked into the skin if there is an allergy to that food.

Other allergy tests include:

  • A physical exam to rule out other medical issues
  • A blood test, which measures your immune system’s response to a substance based on the IgE levels
  • Elimination diet, which is when you will eliminate a suspected food for a full week or two and then adding the suspect back into your diet to see if a reaction occurs
  • Oral food challenge, which is done in a doctor’s office. You’ll eat the suspected food in small but increasing amounts to see if and when a reaction occurs

Things that can help speed the diagnosis up:

  • Track your symptoms
  • Keep track of the foods that seem to cause the reaction
  • Pay attention to how much of that food you consumed
  • Give the doctor your family history of allergies

A Doctor Explains What Happens to Your Body

When you develop an allergy, your body suddenly begins viewing a substance (in this case, food) as harmful. Your body will then start producing immunoglobulin E (IgE), which are antibodies. These antibodies attach to cells, causing a release of histamine.

The histamine causes inflammation in more minor cases and a drop in blood pressure or anaphylactic shock in severe cases. This is because Immunoglobulin E antibodies are supposed to fight infections. In the case of an allergy, however, IgE is mistakenly released.

How Does a Food Allergy Develop Later in Life?

Some people are born with food allergies, and others develop them later in life. This concept is confusing for most people because it seems impossible to develop an allergy later in life to something you never had a problem with before. Unfortunately, it happens, and it’s not unusual.

Developing an allergy later in life is common, according to Dr. Davis at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. Dr. Davis is a practiced allergist and has seen patient’s as old as 85 develop an allergy to something new.

Unfortunately, doctors and researchers don’t quite know why this happens later in life, but there are theories. Sometimes it is believed that the allergy developed after being exposed to something that they hadn’t often been around before. That isn’t always the case, however, as an allergy can expand to a food that you’ve consumed regularly.

Food Allergy Treatment Plans

There is no cure, although allergies can go away at any time. There are treatment options, however, to help you along the way.

Prevention

Treatment plans vary, but they all begin in one place: prevention. The number one rule is to avoid the allergen as often as possible and have ideas put into place to prevent a reaction.

This means you should read all the food labels every time. If there is no ingredient label, a person with an allergy should avoid it. Unfortunately, this often means that pot lucks are not an option, so you may need to plan and pack your food.

Another way to prevent a reaction is by telling those you are around regularly about your allergy. They may choose to leave that allergen at home next time they know you’ll be around. This also means they will know to speak up if they see that allergen near the foods you consume.

Other Treatment Options

  • Create an action plan and make sure those who are regularly around are aware of it
  • Ask your doctor to prescribe an epinephrine autoinjector such as an EpiPen
  • Know how to use your epinephrine autoinjector and make sure those you are with also know-how
  • Wear a medical alert bracelet in case you have a reaction and cannot communicate
  • Take Benedryl for less-severe reactions

If You Have to Use an Epinephrine Autoinjector

When prescribed, a doctor will show you how to use the autoinjector, but if you haven’t done it before, you’ll likely forget or feel uncomfortable. It isn’t tricky, however. The autoinjector has a concealed needle that pops out and injects one dose of epinephrine into your body when you press the injector into your thigh.

It is also important to remember to tell those who you are often around how to use the autoinjector just in case you become unconscious or aren’t able to administer it yourself for any reason.

You should carry it with you at all times, and having an extra autoinjector in the places you visit frequently could be life-saving. It is also essential to check the dates on your autoinjector to make sure that the medication isn’t past its expiration date.

If you have to use your EpiPen or equivalent medication, you will need to visit an emergency room afterward. Another dose may be required but, even if it isn’t necessary, you still need to be checked out by a professional.

Final Thoughts on Living Life Fully Despite A Food Allergy

While a food allergy diagnosis can be life-altering for everyone in your home, it gets easier as time passes. The more you learn about allergies, the easier it becomes to live with and manage the allergy.

Prevention is critical, but it is also vital to have an action plan in place in case a reaction occurs. While there is no cure, it is manageable.

Following doctor advice (and specifically the allergist’s advice) will help you through. A doctor can also help you understand what is happening to your body.

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