We like the food we like, and the thought of being allergic to our favorite food can be quite difficult. Cake, sandwiches, pasta, cheese – are you really supposed to avoid these foods for the rest of your life? Since there is so much misinformation out there, we spoke with William Culver, MD, who specializes in Allergy and Immunology at the Banner Health Clinic in Loveland, Colorado, to get his input on food allergies. He indicated that symptoms related to food are very misunderstood.
According to recent surveys, about 40% of people responded that they have food allergies. This number is likely so high because many people confuse food allergies with food intolerances. A food allergy means that we can measure the presence of IgE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies towards specific foods – this is what will trigger the dreaded symptoms of a food allergy when a certain food is consumed – and these foods produce symptoms when consumed.
Food allergy symptoms are immediate and occur consistently each time a specific food is eaten. These symptoms include:
- Swelling of the tongue or lips
- Rash or hives
- Difficulty breathing
More severe symptoms are potentially life-threatening.
Food intolerances may produce gas, bloating and abdominal discomfort, but are not as life-threatening as the symptoms of a food allergy. Conditions such as lactose and gluten intolerance are not allergies by nature, since there is no allergic antibody that can be demonstrated.
Dr. Culver explains that people often think their symptoms of headaches, abdominal pain, nasal issues or constipation may be related to a food allergy, but that isn’t scientifically valid. These are intolerance symptoms.
What should I do if I think I have an allergy to a specific food?
If a food continues to bother you each time you eat it, don’t consume it. If the reactions are life-threatening, avoid the food altogether and talk to your doctor about further testing. Your doctor may recommend you visit an allergist to receive a skin test or blood test to better determine if you should omit a particular food from your diet. If you do, in fact, have a life-threatening food allergy, your doctor may prescribe you an EpiPen to keep on-hand in the event of an allergic reaction. Bottom line is foods that create symptoms should be avoided; foods that do not cause symptoms can be consumed.
What kind of allergy tests are there?
There are allergy (IgE) skin tests and allergy blood tests that can help determine what foods an individual may be allergic to. An allergy skin test exposes your skin to possible allergens, is typically done on the forearm or upper back, and is then observed for any signs of an allergic reaction. Allergy blood tests draw a sample of blood from a vein in your arm and examine the amount of IgE antibodies you have in your blood. The larger the number of IgE antibodies, the more likely you are to have an allergy.
Unfortunately, allergy tests are not always accurate. Some people may receive a blood test for allergies and the results may not coordinate with their history of symptoms when eating that particular food. There are also false positive tests in which the results show that one may have IgE antibodies to a food they have never had an issue with. False negative results occur if no IgE antibodies are demonstrated to a food that always causes allergic type symptoms . These allergy tests are not nearly as important as your own experience, so focus on how your body reacts to different kinds of food.
Another issue is that there is really only one scientifically accepted allergy blood test: IgE testing. While there are other kinds, such as IgG or white cell testing, they have not been shown to be scientifically valid and, for that reason, are often not covered by insurance. At-home tests are usually not IgE, meaning they are not verified for accurate allergy testing, and questionable results may occur. The most important thing to understand about food allergies is to establish a cause and effect relationship with food – every time you have a certain food, track if you experience specific symptoms. If symptoms are mild, you might choose to continue to eat the food and accept the fact that you will likely experience symptoms. If symptoms are life-threatening, however, it is important to be extremely careful and consult with your doctor on what to do in the event of an allergic reaction.
To learn more about allergies, visit: bannerhealth.com/services/allergy.