Food allergies can be deadly, but not all physical reactions to food require a visit to the emergency room. Knowing when to call 911 and when you can treat a reaction with things in your home could save your life, as well as some money.
As many as 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. And these numbers are rising. Between 1997 and 2011, food allergies in children increased by 50 percent, and now they affect one in every 13 kids. Their prevalence is alarming, as are their potential effects.
When is it an emergency?
Every three minutes, someone goes to the emergency room because they have a severe allergic reaction to food. This results in about 200,000 visits per year. If you experience any of the following symptoms, get help immediately, as anaphylaxis can happen in a matter of minutes or even seconds:
- wheezing or high-pitched breathing
- difficulty breathing
- difficulty swallowing
- heart palpitations
- slurred speech
- swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
- chest pain or tightness
- rapid pulse
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach cramping
On some occasions, an allergic reaction to food may be less severe.
Treating mild allergic reactions
Occasionally, a food allergy is first discovered by what feels like a mild reaction, like tingling of the mouth and lips, hives or itchy skin, or an upset stomach. Some of these symptoms, however, can also indicate early stages of anaphylaxis, so caution is always recommended. Unfortunately, the list of home remedies for any allergic reaction is short.
1. Stop eating
If your body is reacting to a food you’ve eaten, the first step is simple: Stop eating the food. Don’t “test” to see if the food is causing your symptoms by eating more, and don’t treat a mild allergic reaction nonchalantly. Repeated exposures when you are recovering from a reaction will only make it worse.
Over-the-counter antihistamines may help lessen the symptoms of a mild reaction. Benadryl, for instance, could help combat hives and itching. But if the hives are sudden onset, this could be the beginning of anaphylaxis. No over-the-counter antihistamine will help with this — only an injection of epinephrine will reverse anaphylaxis.
Some sources suggest acupuncture as a possible treatment for food allergies. This ancient Chinese practice utilizing small, painless needles in “meridian points” throughout the body has been shown to be effective for everything from weight loss to chronic pain. However, more research on acupuncture as a food allergy treatment is needed.
Prevention is key
The best way to fight a food allergy and avoid both mild and severe reactions is to know what you’re eating and to avoid those foods or substances that you’re allergic to.
If you’re unsure, your doctor can do a series of tests to pinpoint foods and substances that will trigger a reaction.
- Read labels and ask people what’s in food before you indulge.
- Make sure people around you know about your allergy, so if an emergency occurs, they are prepared to help.
- Though the severity of some food allergies lessens over time, don’t test the waters by trying even a little bit of potentially dangerous food.
Finally, if you’ve experienced a mild allergic reaction to food, see your doctor. Your reaction may have been mild this time, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be as lucky the next. Each reaction can be worse, so it’s wise to talk to your doctor about having an EpiPen available.