An estimated 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies, which accounts for roughly 20,000 emergency room visits annually.  Unfortunately, as many as 200 people die from food-related allergic reactions each year.

A food allergy occurs when a person with particular genetic predisposition produces specific immunoglobulin E (an allergy antibody) to the protein of a certain food.  When those antibodies react with a certain food, histamine and other chemicals are released from the body and cause allergic symptoms.  Even when you only eat a small amount of allergy causing food, a reaction can be triggered.  But, some foods such as food additives can trigger non-IgE mediated reactions and cause allergic symptoms similar to IgE-mediated reactions.

Although all foods can cause an allergy, tree nuts, eggs, soy, milk, wheat, fish, and shellfish account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions. Less common additives such as dyes, sulfites, parabens, monosodium glutamate, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and nitrates can also cause allergic reactions.

Food-allergy reactions can affect several body systems such as the gastrointestinal tract (abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting), skin (hives, eczema), respiratory system (swelling of the throat or mouth, wheezing, difficulty breathing) and cardiovascular system (drop in blood pressure, feeling of impending doom, loss of consciousness).

Urticaria (hives) is an outbreak of red bumps of patches called “wheals” that appear on the skin, produced by the presence of histamine and other chemicals.  The most dangerous allergic reaction is known as “anaphylaxis” and can produce shortness of breath, wheezing, airway swelling, increased heart rate, loss of consciousness, and even death.  Both usually occur within minutes or can be delayed up to two hours after ingestion of the offending food.  Chronic hives, which lasts more than three months, is not commonly caused by a food allergy.

The principal treatment of an acute severe allergic reaction is epinephrine.  People with food allergies should carry self-injection devices such as an EpiPen with them at all times.  After epinephrine is administered, they should be observed for four to eight hours at a medical facility and receive additional treatment, if necessary.