Health Matters

Enter the grocery store and there are countless reminders of the more popular food allergies and reactions to foods that people have: "Eat gluten-free!" "May contain peanuts." "This product contains eggs or egg products."

But what is a food allergy? How does a body react to a food allergy?

Many of us have allergies of one sort or another. Allergies to pollen, cat dander, or grass are some that you might hear of often. A food allergy is an abnormal response to a food that is usually not harmful when eaten. When you are allergic to a certain food and you eat it, your body's immune system triggers a response.

Your immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend against germs. When your immune system recognizes that a "foreign" invader has entered your body such as bacteria or a virus, it takes on the job of finding the invaders and then destroying them. With most food or other types of allergic reactions, your immune system is responding to a false alarm.

People with food allergies experience various symptoms. The severity will also vary from person to person. However, there are some common symptoms. They include itching or swelling in your mouth; vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps and pain; and hives or eczema. Some of the more serious ones include trouble breathing; a tightening of the throat, and a drop in blood pressure.

If you have a food allergy, do not take it lightly. Some of the symptoms can be life-threatening. The only way to really prevent the symptoms of a food allergy is by avoiding the food. After you identify the foods you are sensitive to with your doctor, you should remove them from your diet.

The way your doctor can help you determine what you're allergic to are varied. Your doctor will probably take a detailed health history and ask you about allergies in your family. He or she may ask you to eliminate one food at a time from your diet. Or the doctor may do some skin or blood tests. Some allergies are more common than others. Children often have food allergies to eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, and wheat. For some children, the food allergy may diminish or disappear as the child grows older. Common food allergies for adults include fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts such as walnuts.

If your doctor does find that you have a food allergy, be sure to be prepared in case you are accidentally exposed to that food. Get a medical alert bracelet or necklace that clearly lists your allergy. I'd also highly recommend that you carry a device that will automatically inject you with epinephrine (adrenaline) if you need it. It can save your life before medical help can reach you.

To find out more about food allergies, see your doctor and visit the website of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at

Dr. Kim Fodor is an internist at SVMC Internal Medicine. Physician services at SVMC are provided by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Physicians. "Health Matters" is a weekly column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.


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