More than 50 million Americans have an allergy of some kind. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) estimates up to 15 million people in the United States have a food allergy.
A rash is one of several common symptoms that can occur if you have an allergic reaction to a food. Keep reading to learn more about what food rashes may look like and what you can do about them.
Food allergy reactions don’t always include rashes. However, rashes associated with food allergies have symptoms such as:
A rash tends to develop shortly after coming into contact with the food. With a food sensitivity it may appear around your mouth, neck, or face — basically anywhere food has come into contact with your skin.
It’s also possible to have a rash on other parts of your body. This is more common with a food allergy. Overall, the symptoms of a food allergy rash are the same among children and adults.
You may be able to tell your rash is from a food allergy if you also have other symptoms of a food allergy, such as:
- abdominal cramps
- itchy or watery eyes
- itchy, stuffy nose
Food allergy rashes are caused by ingesting foods you’re allergic to. Your immune system treats the proteins in the food as harmful substances and tries to fight them. Even trace amounts can lead to an allergic reaction.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), the most common food allergens include:
- cow’s milk
While these are the most common, it’s possible to be allergic to any food. In fact, FARE estimates that at least 170 foods can cause allergies.
There’s also the possibility of cross-reactivity. For example, if you’re allergic to ragweed, you could also be allergic to foods in the same family, such as melons. A common cross-reactive allergy is latex and foods. People with latex allergies may also be allergic to fruits including bananas, kiwi, and avocado.
Food allergies are often detected during early childhood as a result of an adverse reaction to a particular food. Blood or skin tests can also help diagnose food allergies. Many children outgrow food allergies, but it’s possible to have lifelong allergies. Adults can also develop new food allergies, though this is less common.
The only way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid a food allergen entirely. While food labels are very important, it’s also important for you to be prepared in case of a reaction.
Food allergy rashes eventually subside once the underlying reaction stops. One of the best ways to help is to stop your exposure to the allergen.
Wash your hands and face, if needed, as well as any surfaces that may have come in contact with the suspected food. This can help prevent more rashes. Some people rinse off with a quick shower.
Apply a soothing cream or gel
If the rash is bothersome, you can apply over-the-counter (OTC) creams, such as hydrocortisone.
Take an antihistamine
An oral antihistamine can also help. These will help alleviate the itchiness, inflammation, and overall discomfort.
There are different OTC antihistamines, each with a different active ingredient. Some may work better than others for you and your symptoms. It takes time for the antihistamine to build up in your system. You shouldn’t mix antihistamines. Take one type of antihistamine as directed while your rash is present.
Read more about different antihistamine brands such as Benadryl, Claritin, and Allegra.
Speak to a doctor
For your long-term health and comfort, it can be helpful to consult an allergist or even a nutritionist or dietitian. An allergist can help you to identify your allergens and determine what OTC antihistamine is appropriate for you.
In addition, a nutritionist or dietitian can provide you with useful tips and suggestions for foods so you avoid your allergy trigger while still getting the right nutrition.
A food allergy rash may not appear until your immune system reacts to the food. Depending on the food and the amount you ingest, this can take a few hours. Other cases can develop within minutes.
Scratching at it can make it last longer. This can also increase your risk for skin infection.
Once your immune system calms down, your symptoms will subside. Antihistamines and topical creams can help alleviate minor symptoms. Overall, the rash should subside within a day or two.
According to FARE, it’s possible to have a second wave of food allergy symptoms, which may occur up to four hours after the initial reaction, though this is rare.
Call your doctor if you think your initial food allergy rash has become infected. Signs may include inflammation, pain, and discharge. The size of the rash can also increase if it’s infected.
The most severe type of allergic reaction is anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening condition. This is not a complication of a food rash itself, but rather a complication of the overall allergic reaction. Hives and anaphylactic reactions often occur together, but you can have hives without having anaphylaxis.
On top of the food allergy symptoms listed above, anaphylaxis may cause:
- breathing difficulties
- chest pain
- low blood pressure
- severe swelling in the mouth, face, neck, and throat
- tightness in the throat
- tingling lips, hands, and feet
If your doctor recommends epinephrine shots for severe food allergies, it’s important to keep them on hand at all times. Even breathing in a food allergen can cause severe issues. Also, the severity of a reaction may vary — just because one reaction was mild, doesn’t mean the next will also be mild.
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. Call 911 or your local emergency services and take your epinephrine shot as soon as you experience symptoms. Antihistamines can’t treat anaphylaxis because the symptoms are too severe at this stage.
A food allergy occurs when your immune system adversely reacts to proteins in a certain food you’re allergic to. This is not the same thing as a food intolerance.
Food intolerance is primarily a digestive issue that can cause symptoms similar to food allergies, except that it’s not life-threatening.
Non-itchy rashes from a food intolerance can also develop over time, such as “chicken skin” on arms. This is unlike a food allergy rash, which tends to occur within minutes or hours of eating the suspected food. Food intolerance can also cause bloating, stomach pain, and mild digestive upset.
Another key difference is that you can sometimes have small amounts of a food without a problem if you have an intolerance. With an allergy, even a small amount of the food can cause issues.
According to the AAAAI, most suspected cases of food allergies are actually intolerances. However, you don’t want to take a chance with self-diagnosis. An allergist can help you determine the difference.
If you suspect moderate to severe food allergies, make an appointment with an allergist. This type of specialist can accurately diagnose food allergies and rule out any possible food sensitivities.
Since there’s no cure for food allergies, the best way to prevent them — and subsequent symptoms like rashes — is to avoid the culprit completely.