Your Top Food Allergy Questions, Answered

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Your Top Food Allergy Questions, Answered

Lisa Wright · Mar 29, 2022
Woman grips her throat after exposing herself to peanuts.

Our body’s relationship with the food we eat can be complicated, to say the least. For some, spicy foods are a no-go. Others may struggle with indigestion, upset stomachs, or even bloating, sometimes for no apparent reason at all. But like it or not, our bodies can react in all sorts of ways to what and how much we eat.

When physical discomfort after eating develops into a regular pattern or increases in severity over time, it’s possible a food allergy may be the root of the problem. But how do you know when simple symptoms have developed into a potentially problematic food allergy?

Chances are you’ve heard about peanut and shellfish allergies and their capacity to cause severe, sometimes life-threatening symptoms. However, there are other, less obvious food allergies that cause minor symptoms – many of which often go undiagnosed.

Below are some of our best tips for living with food allergies, from singling out potential culprits to helpful hints on how to adapt to those pesky allergens.

How to Spot a Potential Food Allergy

Sometimes the symptoms of a food allergy are immediate. For example, you eat Food A and immediately break out in a rash. Others, however, are not so simple to pinpoint, as they may not manifest until several hours later, and the symptoms themselves can also vary. It’s crucial to remember that food allergens not only affect your gastrointestinal health, they can also affect everything from your skin to your respiratory tract. This is just one of many reasons why it’s so important to try and pinpoint the problem as soon as you feel something.

Keep a Food Diary

A pattern of repeated symptoms in relation to specific foods is often indicative of an allergy. Though self-diagnosis is not recommended, it can be initially helpful to keep a food diary to record symptoms and reactions on a daily basis. This will also serve as a helpful diagnostic tool for your allergist when they request a detailed medical history.

Schedule an Appointment with an Allergist

Diagnosing food allergies accurately is the first step in treating them. Expect the allergist to ask about your medical history, your diet, your symptoms, and your family history. They may even ask questions about your living space, as this can help determine whether your allergies are food or environment-based.

Pinpointing the Allergy

Immunologist Doing Skin Prick Allergy Test on a Woman’s Arm

There are several strategies an allergist may employ to determine your food allergy, so it could take awhile. But be patient! Many food allergies are not immediately apparent and some tweaking of your diet and lifestyle may be necessary to help your allergist ascertain a specific allergy or allergies. Below are some common steps allergists take when attempting an allergy diagnosis:

Recommending an Elimination or Special Diet

One of the first steps an allergist may suggest in the hunt for your food allergy is a special diet (again, keeping a food diary is helpful here, as you will likely have to keep track of what you’re ingesting and any potential symptoms for a certain period of time). This process significantly helps to narrow the scope of your potential allergy. In other words, if Food A seems to cause symptoms, Food A is eliminated. If the symptoms decrease, it’s likely that Food A is the culprit, especially if symptoms increase again upon re-introducing Food A to your diet. But remember: these decisions should always be made with your allergist, especially if your symptoms are severe. Food should never be consumed in any quantity if your allergist determines you have even the smallest risk of anaphylaxis.

Allergy Testing

Food diaries and elimination diets are helpful diagnostic tools, but a test is the best way to further narrow down your potential allergen. While both blood and skin tests can be helpful, keep in mind that they too aren’t always conclusive. A positive result may indicate an allergy, but does not have the capability to predict a potential reaction and/or its severity. After all, some people have food allergies and never develop any symptoms.

Diagnosis: Complicated

Unfortunately, diagnosing a food allergy or allergies can be a complicated and often time-consuming process. After all, everyone is different, and even if you do have a food allergy, your symptoms may not always be the same. However, by analyzing your test results, your medical history, and your food intake diary, it’s likely your allergist will be able to make an informed diagnosis and recommend a course of action for avoiding those foods. You may even be prescribed an epi-pen, depending on the severity of your allergic reactions.

Tips for Living With a Food Allergy

Common food allergens.

Diagnosing a food allergy is only half the battle. Learning to live with and adapt to food allergies is often just as difficult, as it usually requires some pretty big dietary and lifestyle changes.

Read the Label

Reading the label on everything you eat is extremely important when it comes to identifying and avoiding potential allergens. Luckily, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) mandates that food labels contain the top food allergens in either their ingredient list or in a separate “contains” list on the label. This makes it easy for those with allergies to identify potential culprits like milk, eggs, soy, wheat, nuts, and shellfish. Of course, some labels can still be misleading, and products’ ingredients do sometimes change. So be vigilant, and if you’re ever in doubt, check with the manufacturer directly, or simply avoid the food in question.

Keep It Clean

Cross-contact is when a potential food allergen comes into contact with a “safe food,” and this can happen in a number of ways (food prep, cooking, and serving, to name a few). To avoid cross-contact, be sure to keep your food and cook space clean. That means regular hand washing during food prep, keeping surfaces and utensils spic and span, separating foods during storage, and avoiding the sharing of unknown food, drinks, and utensils.

Plan Ahead

Before attending gatherings, eating out, or going to events where food is going to be served, be sure to plan ahead. Check the menu, identify any potential allergens, and be sure to notify friends, family members, or restaurant/event staff of your allergies in advance. If you’ve got one, be sure to carry your epi-pen at all times.

Food allergies can be a real headache. From identifying symptoms and diagnostic uncertainty to lifestyle changes and dietary restrictions, there are a number of factors that can make living with a food allergy complicated. But by being proactive, consulting with an allergist, and developing healthy everyday habits, food allergies can be a manageable part of life for those in the know.

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