Is it a food sensitivity or a life-threatening allergy?

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How can you determine if you have a true allergy or a minor sensitivity?

“Food sensitivity or intolerance is a common condition, and it is often mistaken for a true food allergy. A sensitivity reaction will cause a localized response such as a headache, nausea, or other gastrointestinal symptoms,” says Vicky Keys, M.S.N., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing. “It can be very uncomfortable, but not life threatening.”

On the other hand, a true food allergy (FA) activates the body’s immune system at the cellular level, and reactions can be life threatening. The body reacts to the food as if it were a foreign invader. Symptoms may occur within one hour of ingesting the offending food. FA is a public health problem that is increasing in prevalence. It affects less than four percent of adults, and six to eight percent of children. The prevalence is highest in infants and toddlers. Major culprits include milk, eggs, various nuts, soybeans, wheat, fish and various shellfish.

There is no treatment for FA, only management strategies based on strict avoidance of the offending food (elimination diet), and prompt treatment of adverse reactions once exposure has occurred.

A primary care provider can conduct a food allergy test to confirm the offending allergen. If you are considering an allergy test, or suspect that you may have a food sensitivity, Keys suggests keeping a detailed food diary to help determine the culprit. Since any number of ingredients could trigger a reaction, keep a record of what you eat, the type of symptoms you experience, and the amount of time between ingestion and your symptoms. “Keeping a food diary can help you and your physician pinpoint what is causing your discomfort faster,” says Keys.

If you have a sensitivity, avoidance is the key to managing symptoms. Keys recommends the following strategy to take charge of your safety:

1. Familiarize yourself with ingredient names and read food labels

Read the label to make sure there are no traces of your allergen present in the product. “Many companies will post if there are other ingredients that the product could have come into contact with,” notes Keys. “There are several ingredients that a single item could have encountered. Even a small trace of your allergen could cause a potential reaction.”

In the presence of a FA, these additional precautions should be taken.

2. Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace.

Because you can’t control the environment around you, exposure to harmful allergens could happen at any time. Wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace could help others if you have a life-threatening allergic reaction.

3. Carry an epi-pen or other necessary allergy medicines.

If your health care provider determines you do have a food allergy, they may prescribe you with an epi-pen. If so, they will demonstrate how to use it, and the package insert comes with instructions. You should always carry your allergy medicines and the epi-pen, in case you have a severe allergic reaction.

Make sure someone in your home, work, or school knows how to use the epi-pen if you are unable to activate it yourself.

“It’s extremely important to immediately seek medical help if you experience a food reaction, even if you’ve used your epi-pen,” warns Keys. “Anaphylactic shock is life-threatening and can happen very quickly.”

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