Food Allergy Basics

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is an adverse health effect resulting from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food. The health effect, called an allergic reaction, occurs because the immune system attacks food proteins that are normally harmless. There is no cure for food allergy. Strict avoidance of food allergens and early recognition and management of allergic reactions to food are important measures to prevent serious health consequences.


Understanding Food Allergy

What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?

Food allergy is sometimes confused with food intolerance. Food allergies involve our immune system and can be life-threatening. An intolerance is when your body has trouble digesting a food. It can make you feel badly, usually with an upset stomach, but it is not life-threatening. The most common intolerance is to lactose, which is a natural sugar found in milk.

What is an allergen?  

A substance present in food or other sources that can cause an allergic reaction.

What are the most common food allergens?

Although nearly any food is capable of causing an allergic reaction, there are eight foods that cause the majority of reactions. The top eight food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.

Learn more, visit: Allergens

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction?

An allergic reaction to food can affect the skin, the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract, and, in the most serious cases, the cardiovascular system. Reactions can range from a mild response to anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially deadly reaction. Severe symptoms, alone or in combination with milder symptoms, may be signs of anaphylaxis and require immediate treatment.

For a detailed look at the symptoms of an allergic reaction including how a child might describe a reaction, visit: Symptoms

What is anaphylaxis? (pronounced an-uh-fil-LAX-is)

Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially fatal allergic reaction. It can be caused by food allergens but also other agents like insect bites, latex and medications. It is important to recognize the symptoms of anaphylaxis and when to use epinephrine, the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis.

For more information about anaphylaxis, please visit: About Anaphylaxis

Will antihistamines stop anaphylaxis?

No. While antihistamines can help relieve some mild symptoms from an allergic reaction, such as an itchy mouth or hives, they cannot stop the life-threatening symptoms of anaphylaxis.

How quickly can a food allergy reaction occur?

Symptoms typically appear within minutes to several hours after eating the food to which you are allergic.

Is there are cure for food allergy?

There is no cure for food allergy, but scientists are working to find treatments to prevent life-threatening reactions. These therapies are under study in clinical trials, but none have been proven yet for general use.

Can a person outgrow their food allergies?

Peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish allergies usually are lifelong. Milk, egg, wheat and soy allergies usually begin in childhood and eventually may be outgrown.

How are food allergies treated?

Currently, the only way to prevent a food-allergic reaction is to avoid the problem food. Mild to moderate symptoms (e.g., itching, sneezing, localized hives or rashes) are often treated with antihistamines and oral or topical steroids. For patients at risk of experiencing a severe reaction (anaphylaxis), epinephrine is prescribed.

Treatment options and managing reactions: Treatment & Managing Reactions

What is epinephrine?

Epinephrine (adrenaline), is a self-injectable medication and the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. Epinephrine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a safe and highly effective medication that can reverse severe symptoms. If you have been prescribed epinephrine, FARE recommends that you carry two epinephrine auto-injectors with you at all times to make sure you have quick access to this life-saving medication.

Epinephrine Options & Training: Epinephrine

What is cross-contact?

Cross-contact happens when one food comes into contact with another food and their proteins mix. As a result, each food then contains small amounts of the other food. These amounts are so small that they usually can’t be seen. Even this tiny amount of food protein has caused reactions in people with food allergies! The term “cross-contact” is fairly new. Some people may call this “cross-contamination.”

For tips on how to avoid cross-contact, please visit: Avoiding Cross-Contact