May was Food Allergy Awareness Month, but if you or a loved one has food allergies, you are likely already more aware than you want to be. If you are a parent of an infant, you may have heard that food allergies seem to be more common these days — and concerned that your child will develop one.
It’s unclear whether the increase in food allergy cases over the past 10-20 years is due to more people developing allergies or simply because of increased awareness and detection. An estimated 2 to 8 percent of infants and 1 percent of adults have food allergies — far less than the number of people who think they have food allergies.
Food-allergy symptoms range from a stuffy, runny nose to hives to diarrhea and vomiting. With severe food allergies, the body may go into anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal. The real culprit is the immune system, which isn’t supposed to react to the food we eat in the same way it reacts to other foreign substances. Bacteria, viruses and poisons can make us immediately sick and need to be attacked, but our bodies need food to survive.
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Food allergy is one of two types of adverse food reactions — celiac disease is the other — that involves the immune system. While the exact cause of food allergies is not quite clear, there are many contributing factors, including genetics. Babies are more likely to develop a food allergy if they have a parent or sibling with allergies or asthma, and the risk increases even more for babies who have existing allergies or asthma and a parent or sibling with a food allergy. There’s no evidence that allergies to specific foods are inherited.
Many childhood food allergies develop by age 2 while our immune and digestive systems are relatively immature. The top 10 allergic foods are milk, eggs, wheat, corn, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, seeds, shellfish and fish. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that parents delay introducing young children to these foods, based on the theory that this would help prevent food allergies. In the past few years, the AAP reversed that position, saying that while delaying solid foods until at least 17 weeks of age is associated with fewer food allergies, there is no evidence that delaying solid foods — including commonly allergic foods — beyond 6 months reduces risk.
Many children outgrow their food allergies by their fifth birthday, but others do not. Some food allergies develop in adulthood. While there’s no cure for food allergies, current clinical trials may offer new hope. Learn more on the Seattle Food Allergy Consortium website at www.seafac.org.
If you don’t have food allergies, there are a few things you can do to make life easier for those who do. First, don’t tell your waiter you are allergic to a food when really you just loathe it. This is akin to “crying wolf,” and can make it harder for people with true food allergies to be taken seriously. Second, don’t be offended if someone with a food allergy turns down your home-baked goodies. Even if you left out the nuts or other problem foods, potential cross-contamination is still a risk, and it’s better to be safe than be sorry.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Northwest Natural Health in Ballard. She has a Master of Public Health degree in nutritional sciences from UW. Her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com and her website is carriedennett.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org