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Food Allergy Symptoms + 6 Ways to Reduce Them

Food allergies are immune-based diseases that have become a serious health concern in the United States, with an estimated 32 million Americans dealing with food allergy symptoms according to the food allergy research organization FARE.

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Despite the risk of severe allergic reactions and even death, there is no current cure for food allergies. The condition can only be managed by allergen avoidance or treatment of food allergy symptoms.

Fortunately, there are natural allergy fighters that can help boost the immune system and enhance the gut microbiota, which helps reduce the development of food allergies and food allergy symptoms.

What Are Food Allergies?

Food allergies consist of immune system responses to disagreeable foods. The body senses that a protein in a particular food may be harmful and triggers an immune system response, producing histamine to protect itself. The body “remembers” this, and when this food enters the body again, the histamine response is more easily triggered.

The diagnosis of food allergies may be problematic because nonallergic food reactions, such as food intolerances, are frequently confused with food allergy symptoms. Intolerance derived from an immunological mechanism is referred to as a food allergy, and the non-immunological form is called a food intolerance.

Food allergies and intolerances are often linked, but there’s a clear difference between the two conditions.

A food allergy comes from a reaction of the allergen-specific immunoglobulin E antibody that is found in the bloodstream. Non-IgE-mediated food allergies are also possible. This happens when someone is exposed to a food that causes signs and symptoms of an allergy, such as allergic contact dermatitis.

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A food intolerance is an adverse reaction to foods or food components but not due to immunologic mechanisms.

For example, a person may have an immunologic response to cow’s milk because of the milk’s protein, or that individual may be intolerant to milk due to an inability to digest the sugar lactose. The inability to digest lactose leads to excess fluid production in the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in abdominal pain and diarrhea. This condition is termed lactose intolerance because lactose in not an allergen, as the response is not immune-based.

Food intolerances are nonspecific, and the symptoms often resemble common medically unexplained complaints, such as digestive issues.

IgE-medicated food allergies are the most common and dangerous of adverse food reactions. They cause your immune system to react abnormally when exposed to one or more specific foods. Immediate reactions to IgE-mediated food allergies are caused by an allergen-specific immunoglobulin E antibody that floats around in the bloodstream.

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When IgE is working properly, it identifies triggers that could be harmful to the body, such as parasites, and tells the body to release histamine. Histamine causes allergy symptoms, such as hives, coughing and wheezing.

Sometimes IgE reacts to normal proteins that are found in foods — and when the protein is absorbed during digestion and enters the bloodstream, the entire body reacts as if the protein is a threat. This is why food allergy symptoms are noticeable in the skin, respiratory system, digestive system and circulatory system.

According to a 2014 comprehensive review published in Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology, the prevalence of food allergies in infancy is increasing and may affect up to 15 percent to 20 percent of infants. Researchers from Mount Sinai School of Medicine suggest that food allergies affect as many as 6 percent of young children and 3 percent to 4 percent of adults.

Updated reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 6.2 percent of adults in the U.S. have food allergies, while 5.8 percent of children do.

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Researchers suggest that this increase in the prevalence of food allergies may be due to a change in the composition, richness and balance of the microbiota that colonize the human gut during early infancy. The human microbiome plays a vital role in early-life immune development and function. Since IgE-mediated food allergies are associated with immune dysregulation and impaired gut integrity, there is substantial interest in the potential link between gut microbiota and food allergies.

Common Food Allergies

Although any food can provoke a reaction, relatively few foods are responsible for a vast majority of significant food-induced allergic reactions. Here are some of the most common food allergies.

1. Cow’s Milk

Cow’s milk protein allergy affects 2 percent to 7.5 percent of children. Persistence in adulthood since tolerance develops in more than 99 percent of children by age 6.

Numerous milk proteins have been implicated in allergic responses, and most of these have been shown to contain multiple allergenic epitopes (targets that an individual target binds to). IgE-mediated reactions to cow’s milk are common in infancy and non-IgE-mediated reactions are common in adults.

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A 2005 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition suggests that the prevalence of self-diagnosed cow’s milk allergy is 10fold higher than the clinically proven incidence, suggesting that a sizable population is unnecessarily restricting dairy products (for allergy purposes).

2. Eggs

After cow’s milk, hen egg allergy is the second most common food allergy in infants and young children. A 2012 meta-analysis of the prevalence of food allergies estimated that egg allergy affects 0.5 percent to 2.5 percent of young children.

Allergy to eggs usually presents itself in the second half of the first year of life, with a median age of presentation of 10 months. Most reactions occur upon a child’s first known exposure to egg, with eczema the most common symptom.

Five major allergenic proteins from the egg of the domestic chicken have been identified, the most dominant being ovalbumin.

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3. Soy

Soy allergy affects approximately 0.4 percent of children. According to a 2010 study conducted at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, 50 percent of children with a soy allergy outgrew the allergy by 7 years old.

Prevalence of sensitization after the use of soy-based formulas is around 8.8 percent. Soy formula is commonly used for infants who are allergic to cow’s milk, and research suggests that soy allergy occurs in only a small minority of young children with IgE-associated cow’s milk allergy.

4. Wheat

Gluten-related disorders, including wheat allergy, celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, have an estimated global prevalence close to 5 percent. These disorders share similar symptoms, making it difficult to make a clear diagnosis.

A wheat allergy represents a type of adverse immunologic reaction to proteins contained in wheat and related grains. IgE antibodies mediate the inflammatory response to several allergenic proteins found in wheat. Wheat allergy affects the skin, gastrointestinal tract and respiratory tract.

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Wheat allergy shows greater prevalence in children who commonly outgrow the allergy by school age.

5. Peanuts

Peanut allergy tends to present itself early in life, and affected individuals generally do not outgrow it. In highly sensitized people, just trace quantities of peanuts can induce an allergic reaction. Research suggests that early exposure to peanuts may reduce the risk of developing a peanut allergy.

According to a 2010 study, peanut allergy affects approximately 1 percent of children and 0.6 percent of adults in the U.S. Peanuts are inexpensive and frequently eaten in unmodified form and as components of many different prepared foods. They cause the largest number of cases of severe anaphylaxis and death in the U.S.

6. Tree Nuts

The prevalence of tree nut allergies continues to increase worldwide, affecting about 1 percent of the general population. These allergies begin most often during childhood, but they can occur at any age.

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Only about 10 percent of people outgrow tree nut allergies, and frequent lifetime reactions caused by accidental ingestion are a serious problem.

Nuts that are most commonly responsible for allergic reactions include hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews and almonds. Those that are less frequently associated with allergies include pecans, chestnuts, Brazil nuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, pistachio, coconut, Nangai nuts and acorns.

A 2015 systematic review found that walnut and cashew allergies were the most prevalent types of tree nut allergy in the U.S.

7. Fish

According to a study published in Clinical Reviews of Allergy and Immunology, adverse reactions to fish are not only mediated by the immune system causing allergies, but are often caused by various toxins and parasites, including ciguatera and anisakis. (See the list of fish you should never eat.) Allergic reactions to fish can be serious and life-threatening, and children usually don’t outgrow this type of food allergy.

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A reaction is not restricted to the ingestion of fish, as it can also be caused by handling fish and intaking the cooking vapors. Prevalence rates of self-reported fish allergy range from 0.2 percent to 2.29 percent in the general population but can reach up to 8 percent among fish processing workers.

8. Shellfish

Allergic reactions to shellfish, which comprises the groups of crustaceans (such as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill, woodlice and barnacles) and molluscs (such as squid, octopus and cuttlefish), can cause clinical symptoms ranging from mild urticaria (hives) and oral allergy syndrome to life-threatening anaphylactic reactions.

Shellfish allergy is known to be common and persistent in adults, and it can cause anaphylaxis in both children and adults. The prevalence of shellfish allergy is anywhere from 0.5 percent to 5 percent. Most shellfish-allergic children have sensitivity to dust mite and cockroach allergens as well.

A phenomenon called cross-reactivity may occur when an antibody reacts not only with the original allergen, but also with a similar allergen. Cross-reactivity occurs when a food allergen shares structural or sequence similarity with a different food allergen, which may then trigger an adverse reaction similar to that triggered by the original food allergen.

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