There is no known cure for food allergies. But there are things you can do to reduce a child’s risk of developing them and to help prevent allergic reactions at any age.
Substances that trigger allergic reactions are called allergens. Being around allergens as a baby was once seen to increase the risk of food allergies. But more recent studies suggest that exposure to them at an early age can actually help to prevent allergies from developing.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a treatment for children who have a peanut allergy to reduce the chances of severe allergic reactions.
Food allergies can run in your family, meaning you may be more likely to develop them if you inherit certain genes from your parents.
If you already have an allergy, completely avoiding the allergen is the only way to prevent a reaction.
Eating even small amounts of an allergen can make your reactions worse over time and put you at greater risk of developing other allergic conditions.
If you think you or your child may have a food allergy, you should consult your doctor.
If you’re at risk of a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, your doctor may prescribe an epinephrine pen to treat it. They can also advise you on allergy-specific treatments.
Read on to learn more about food allergies, what scientists know about preventing them, and how to reduce the risk of allergic reactions.
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What is a food allergy?
Food allergies happen when your immune system mistakes harmless food proteins (allergens) as dangerous, triggering a reaction to them.
Peanut allergies are one of the most common food allergies and affect roughly 1.2% of the U.S. population. Around 90% of allergic reactions to food are from peanuts or one of the seven other major food allergens — wheat, soybeans, shellfish, fish, eggs, milk, and tree nuts, like hazelnut.
The FDA also requires food manufacturers to start listing sesame as a major allergen in 2023.
Symptoms of food allergies often develop shortly after eating the triggering food and can range from mild to life-threatening.
Depending on the type of allergy, symptoms can also appear much later on and can include:
itchy red rashes
swollen lips or face
swollen throat and difficulty swallowing
wheezing or difficulty breathing
feeling dizzy or lightheaded
feeling sick or vomiting
stomach pain or diarrhea
Anaphylaxis, sometimes known as anaphylactic shock, can cause breathing difficulties and low blood pressure. It’s a potentially life-threatening severe allergic reaction and, if not treated, can cause damage to your organs and can lead to a heart attack.
If you’re at risk of anaphylaxis, your doctor may give you an epinephrine pen to carry with you.
While some symptoms may overlap, food allergies are different from food intolerances, where your body can’t process or digest certain foods. If you have a reaction to eating a certain food, you should see a doctor who can assess if it may be an allergy.
Can you prevent food allergies from developing?
There are several factors that can contribute to whether you develop a food allergy.
You’re more likely to develop an allergy if a close relative has one, which suggests that your genes play a part. Scientists have long considered the early years to be important in terms of allergy development, too.
For many years, scientists thought that babies exposed to potential allergens had a higher chance of developing allergies to these proteins later in life — but more recent research suggests the opposite.
Scientists have shown that babies at risk of developing allergies to certain foods, like eggs or peanuts, are less likely to do so if they’re exposed to the allergen within their first 6 months.
Studies have also found that people at a high risk of developing these food allergies are less likely to have allergic reactions later in childhood if they had exposure to the allergens as babies.
If you think you or your child may have an allergy, or are at risk of developing one, you should talk to your doctor who can advise you on the best way to introduce common allergenic foods to build a tolerance.
It’s important to avoid giving small children foods that are choking hazards (like whole peanuts) or any that are similar to foods that you already know cause an allergic reaction.
There is some early evidence linking imbalances in the gut microbiome with the development of food allergies.
Your gut microbiome is the collection of bacteria and other microbes that live in your gut. Researchers have found that the gut microbiome of people with food allergies is different from that of people without them.
But scientists need to do more research to figure out if changing the microbiome can successfully prevent food allergies from happening.
How to treat food allergies
There is no cure for food allergies, but there are treatments to help manage the symptoms.
For minor allergic reactions like an itchy throat, healthcare professionals may recommend over-the-counter antihistamine tablets. Depending on how severe the reaction is, these often relieve symptoms within a couple of hours.
For severe allergic reactions like anaphylaxis, your doctor will prescribe an epinephrine pen or EpiPen. This contains adrenaline that counteracts the anaphylactic reaction, which you administer yourself.
The FDA also recently approved an oral treatment for children aged 4 through 17 who have a peanut allergy.
A clinical trial with 500 participants showed that two-thirds of those who received the treatment could tolerate 600 milligrams of peanuts with only a mild allergic reaction. In the group that received the placebo, 4% could tolerate this amount of peanuts.
Scientists are also working on other treatments for food allergies.
Before taking any medication, even over-the-counter, always check with your doctor about the best treatment for you.
How to prevent allergic reactions to food
If you or your child already have a food allergy, the best way to lower the risk of a reaction is by avoiding the allergen.
It’s possible to have an allergic reaction to very small amounts of an allergen.
Think about being on a plane where someone has a peanut allergy. There’s often an announcement that all peanut products have to be kept sealed for the flight because even peanut dust in the air could cause a reaction.
Even if your food allergy is minor and you feel you can “tolerate it,” you should avoid the allergen.
Eating something you’re allergic to can lead to worse reactions over time and put you at greater risk of developing other allergic conditions.
Likewise, food allergies can come in groups. If you have an allergy to one food protein, you might be allergic to other foods with similar proteins. For example, people who are allergic to one type of fish have about a 50% chance of being allergic to another.
That means it’s important not only to be aware of all foods that contain your allergens, but also other foods that may cause similar reactions.
You can also take a number of proactive steps to make cooking and dining out a more comfortable and safer experience:
Read food labels carefully for ingredients and anti-allergy warnings.
Wash any shared pots, pans, or kitchen utensils thoroughly after every use.
Carry an allergy card to share with restaurants, coffee shops, and anywhere you eat, and tell restaurant staff clearly about your allergy and how severe it is.
Ask detailed questions about menu items. Recipes can change, certain ingredients may contain hidden allergens, and cross-contamination can happen in kitchens.
Avoid unpackaged foods and buffet-style restaurants where contamination may be less regulated.
Write down a list of actions to take in the event of an allergic reaction so you and others around you know what to do in an emergency.
Bring at least one dose of your medication with you at all times.
Although there isn’t currently a cure for food allergies, there are treatments available to help manage the symptoms. You can take steps to reduce the risk of developing them from a young age.
Your genes play a part in your chance of developing a food allergy, but so does your diet.
Exposing babies to potential allergens when they start eating solids may help prevent allergic reactions later in life — but you should always consult your doctor before introducing new foods into your child’s diet.
Research has found links between food allergies and your gut microbiome. Having a healthy gut with many beneficial bacteria may help protect against food allergies, although more research is needed to figure out why.
If you or your child has a food allergy, it’s important to avoid the allergen that triggers a reaction. Even small or infrequent exposures could increase your risk of developing more severe reactions.
Cooking and dining out don’t have to be stressful experiences, though.
You can take precautions and significantly reduce your risk of an allergic reaction by reading labels and ingredients carefully, asking questions about menu items, carrying appropriate medication, and having an action plan in case of an emergency.
With careful awareness and advice from your healthcare professional, it’s possible to manage a food allergy safely.
At ZOE, we don’t test for food allergies or food intolerances. Our at-home test analyzes your gut microbiome and your blood sugar and blood fat responses to the foods that you eat.
The ZOE program helps you identify the best foods for your gut microbiome and your metabolic health.
Ready to learn more about the microbes that live in your gut? Take our free quiz today.
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