The Basics of Food Allergies

Six Things to Know After You're Diagnosed with Food Allergies

In the treatment of some chronic conditions, the patient plays a relatively passive role, especially if the primary treatment for the condition is medication. That's not the case with food allergies: You (or your child) will be the person managing your diet on a daily basis and likely the first person to respond to an adverse reaction. While every situation is different, some steps for adjusting to an allergy diagnosis are applicable to almost everyone.

Understanding What's Going On With Your Body

Why is it important to get a good basic grounding in the science behind allergies? Because the more you know about what's happening in your immune system, the better the questions you'll be able to ask your allergist -- and the more you'll be able to separate fact from fiction in news stories and to educate friends and family.

Getting an Accurate Diagnosis

Some allergy symptoms are unmistakable: A child who breaks out in hives after drinking a glass of milk, or a woman whose face immediately swells and starts to turn purple after a tiny taste of peanuts. Others, however, are more subtle. In most cases, when you experience probable allergy symptoms, your doctor will put you through a battery of tests to determine which foods are the culprits or to confirm a likely diagnosis.

Everyday Management: Allergen Avoidance

The basic treatment for any food allergy is avoiding the trigger foods, or allergens. In addition to not eating foods containing the allergens, that means avoiding cross-contamination (situations in which an allergen has tainted an otherwise safe food) and avoiding ingesting hidden allergens -- allergen proteins in non-food sources, like cosmetics and toiletries. Some allergies -- most notably peanut and shellfish allergies -- may also be triggered by inhaling allergen dust or proteins.

Treating Allergy Symptoms and Allergic Emergencies

The most severe (albeit rare) complication of food allergies is anaphylaxis, a reaction by the whole body that can cause potentially fatal cardiac, respiratory, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Nuts, wheat, fish, and shellfish are among the common allergens that are most likely to cause anaphylaxis, although there are reported cases to many other grains, meats, and other foods. If you're diagnosed with an allergy with a high risk of anaphylaxis, your allergist will prescribe injectible epinephrine and advise you to keep it with you at all times. You may also be prescribed antihistamines, steroids, or asthma medications for other allergy symptoms.

Dealing with Lifestyle Changes

When you or a family member is diagnosed with a food allergy, it can change a lot of the routines you've taken for granted. Favorite restaurants may be off-limits because you can't eat anything on the menu; you may find yourself scrambling to find recipes you can cook at home or figure out how to take a family vacation without dealing with allergy complications. Figure out what you can do, and don't be afraid to be politely assertive. But be sure to be prepared with your own safe food and emergency medications, where applicable. Never eat any food unless you're sure of its provenance.

Coping with Stress

Whether you're taking care of a child with allergies or dealing with your own, you're likely to be under a lot of stress. Food allergies have been reported to cause parents more stress than cancer. Coping with that stress is important to your overall physical and mental well-being. Allergy support groups, both online and in person, can provide good social support. Crafting an overall stress management plan need not cost much money but can provide a big boost to your mental and emotional health.

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