Food Allergy Awareness Week

By: TAMU Health Science Center College of Nursing
By: TAMU Health Science Center College of Nursing

Is it a food sensitivity or a life-threatening allergy?

Did you know that less than four percent of adults have a true food allergy? But many people do suffer from a food intolerance or sensitivity-meaning they may start to feel bad after eating a certain food, but they don't have a life threatening reaction. So how can you determine if you have a true allergy or a minor sensitivity?

"A food sensitivity will cause a localized response such as a headache, nausea or other gastrointestinal symptoms," says Vicky Keys, M.S.N., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing. "It's uncomfortable, but not life threatening."

On the other hand, a food allergy activates the body's immune system at the cellular level and reactions can be life threatening. The body reacts to the food as if it were a foreign invader. Symptoms may occur within one hour of ingesting the offending food. Major culprits include milk, eggs, various nuts, soybeans, wheat, fish, and various shellfish.

A doctor can conduct a food allergy test to determine if you have a true allergy and what you are reacting to. If you are considering an allergy test or suspect that you may have a food intolerance or sensitivity, Keys suggests keeping a detailed food diary to help determine the culprit.

"Because there are multiple allergy tests, keeping a food diary can help you and your physician pinpoint what is causing your discomfort faster," says Keys."

Since any number of ingredients could trigger a reaction, keep a record of what you eat, the type of symptoms you experience, and the amount of time between ingestion and your symptoms.

If you have a sensitivity or intolerance, avoidance is the key to managing symptoms. If it is determined that you have a true food allergy, Keys recommends the following strategies to take charge of your safety:

1. Read food labels.
Read the label to make sure there are no traces of your allergen present in the product. This strategy is important even if you have a food sensitivity or intolerance so you can avoid the trigger ingredients.
"Many companies will post if there are other ingredients that the product could have come into contact with," notes Keys. "There are several ingredients that a single item could have encountered. Even a small trace of your allergen could cause a potential reaction."

2. Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace.
Because you can't control the environment around you, exposure to harmful allergens could happen at any time. Wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace could help others if you have a life-threatening allergic reaction.

3. Carry an epi-pen or other necessary allergy medicines.
If your health care provider determines you do have a food allergy, they may prescribe you with an epi-pen. If so, they will demonstrate how to use it, and the package insert comes with instructions. You should always carry your allergy medicines and the epi-pen, in case you have a severe allergic reaction.

Make sure someone in your home, work or school knows how to use the epi-pen if you are unable to activate it yourself.

"It's extremely important to immediately seek medical help if you experience a food reaction, even if you've used your epi-pen," warns Keys. "Anaphylactic shock is life-threatening and can happen very quickly."

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