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Dr. Thomas Helm, Allina Health Northfield Clinic, specializes in treating allergies.

Thomas Helm, MD, Allina Health Northfield Clinic, specializes in treating allergies.

Did you know?

Many children outgrow allergies to milk, wheat, soy and eggs. It is less common to outgrow peanut and tree nut allergies.

Food allergies are becoming more prevalent, increasing by 18 percent between 1997 and 2007. About 5 percent of children younger than age 5, and 4 percent of people older than age 5 have food allergies.

A food allergy is different from food intolerance. Difficulty digesting some kinds of food or reactions to chemicals used in the processing of those foods does not involve the immune system like allergies do.

Living with food allergies

Nothing on the menu said there were peanuts in the entrée, but all of a sudden your lips start swelling, and you know. Your throat starts constricting and hives break out all over your body. Your heart is racing, and you can't breathe. This terrifying experience is well known to those with food allergies.

Who gets food allergies?

People of all ages have food allergies. You may get them the first time you eat a food or suddenly become allergic to foods you have eaten before with no trouble.

Having asthma, eczema or a family history of food allergies increases your risks.

5 ways to cope with a food allergy

Thomas Helm, MD, a family medicine doctor who specializes in allergies, outlines five ways to live with a food allergy.

  • Avoid the food you are allergic to.
  • Read labels carefully to make sure they don't contain foods you are allergic to. Many food labels state if they contain common food allergens.
  • Work with your doctor to make and follow a plan for accidental exposure.
  • Carry an EpiPen® and/or other medicine prescribed by your doctor.
  • Wear a medical alert bracelet. Be sure friends and family know about your allergy and what to do if you need help.

What is a food allergy?

If you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly identifies a protein in a food as harmful and produces antibodies to attack it. You never know whether your reaction will be mild or severe.

An allergic reaction may appear within minutes or a couple of hours. Symptoms may include:

  • hives
  • gastrointestinal distress (stomach problems)
  • respiratory distress (difficulty breathing)
  • lifethreatening anaphylactic shock.

Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, shellfish, soy and wheat are the most common food allergies.

Do you have a food allergy?

See your doctor if you think have a food allergy.

To help your doctor find out if you have a food allergy, keep a food diary of what you eat during the day, what your symptoms are, and when they appear.

In addition to reviewing your medical history and your food diary, your doctor will order allergy testing:

  • With a skin prick test, a small amount of the suspected food is placed on the skin with a toothpick-like device. If there is redness or swelling, you may be allergic to that food.
  • The blood allergy test measures food-specific antibodies. Your doctor will evaluate the results of your tests along with your history and symptoms to make a diagnosis.
  • An oral food challenge is a final way to diagnose a food allergy. A medical professional gives you a dose of the suspected food and watches for a reaction. Increasing doses are administered under careful supervision.

"After we identify what food allergies are present, we can then educate the patient on ways to safely avoid these foods," says Thomas Helm, MD, Allina Health Northfield Clinic.

"We also empower our patients by often prescribing epinephrine, which can stop a food allergy reaction from progressing. We then put together a plan outlining what to do when a reaction starts."

Source: Healthy Communities Magazine, spring 2013
Reviewed by: Thomas Helm, MD, Allina Health Northfield Clinic
First Published: 04/08/2013
Last Reviewed: 04/08/2013