Food allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe. Sometimes, a person may have a mild reaction to a food allergen but then have a severe reaction the next time they are exposed.
Prevention is the best treatment for food allergies. The best thing to do in the case of a food allergy is to avoid the foods that cause the allergic reaction.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which took effect January 1, 2006, requires food manufacturers to disclose in plain language whether packaged products contain any of the eight most common causes of food allergies or proteins derived from those foods: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, peanuts, soybeans, and tree nuts.
This labeling law does not apply to meat, poultry, and egg products, which are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service.
If exposure has already occurred, there are medications that can help manage symptoms. However, if symptoms are severe, go to the emergency room immediately. Severe symptoms include:
- difficulty breathing
- throat swelling
- chest pressure
- racing pulse
These symptoms can be indicative of anaphylaxis—a serious, life-threatening situation that requires immediate medical treatment.
At times, you may not be able to avoid exposure to a food or ingredient that triggers an allergy symptom. A tiny amount of peanuts or some plant oils might be on a restaurant’s cooking utensils. Sometimes, vapors from a neighbor’s dish or from the kitchen can trigger a reaction.
The following medications can help alleviate the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
For minor reactions, such as hives or itching, a first- or second-generation antihistamine may help mitigate symptoms. First generation medications include:
- brompheniramine (Dimetapp)
- dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- doxylamine (Vicks NyQuil)
Second-generation medications include:
- cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- desloratadine (Clarinex)
- fexofenadine (Allegra)
- loratadine (Claritin)
This drug can lessen an allergic reaction to a food if taken before eating. Avoiding the food is, of course, a better approach, as allergic reactions can change.
This drug is widely used in inhalers and nasal medications for allergy symptoms.
These drugs may be effective in reducing such abdominal allergic reactions as cramping, bloating, or nausea.
For a serious allergic reaction, such as anaphylaxis, you may need an emergency injection of epinephrine (EpiPen, Anapen, and Twinject). This medication can be administered by medical response teams, but is also available as an auto-injector. This auto-injector is a single-dose combined syringe and needle that should be carried around by anyone with a known serious food allergy.
When Is Emergency Treatment Needed?
If mild symptoms worsen or if any of the following symptoms are present, give yourself a dose of epinephrine and seek emergency care immediately:
- hoarseness, throat tightness, or a lump in the throat
- wheezing or difficulty breathing
- chest tightness
- tingling in the hands, feet, lips, or scalp
- dizziness, fainting, or a sudden drop in blood pressure
- racing pulse
These may be signs of a severe anaphylactic reaction. This reaction can be life threatening and immediate care is essential. Go to the emergency room at once or call 911.
Even after giving yourself an injection of epinephrine, you should go to the emergency room.
According to pediatric allergist and immunologist Dr. Karen DeMuth, an injection at home is not enough: individuals may need another dose or further treatment.
Action Steps for Emergency Treatment
It is important for you and your loved ones to know what to do in case of emergency symptoms. Consider the following action steps for the treatment of food allergies:
- Write a list of what to do in case of an allergic reaction and put it on the refrigerator or carry it with you when you are not at home. Include reaction symptoms and your doctor’s advice for how to handle each symptom.
- Keep an epinephrine auto-injector in a couple of different places.
- Keep two auto-injectors on hand should one fail or be expired. An expired auto-injector medication may not work properly. This could be life threatening should serious symptoms arise. Be sure to replace expired medication.
- Be sure you know how to use the auto-injector device and educate your loved ones as well.
- Consider wearing a medical bracelet or necklace so others will know of your allergy in case of emergency.
- Continue on to the emergency room even after using the epinephrine device. You may need further, potentially lifesaving treatment.
There are a couple of food allergy treatments currently being tested.
This type of therapy involves slowly acclimating the patient to the food allergen. This involves placing a small amount on the patient’s tongue and/or having the patient swallow the food. Amounts are then gradually increased until the patient is no longer adversely impacted by the previously offending food.
This type of therapy works by lessening the body’s ability to use IgE antibodies. The immune system creates these antibodies when it encounters a particular food protein it deems dangerous. The body then uses them to launch an attack on the “dangerous” substance by creating the antihistamines and other chemicals that cause an allergic reaction.
However, this therapy has been linked with anaphylactic reactions, so more research needs to be done.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a small number of studies have shown that herbal remedies (which include some Chinese medicine blends) may help alleviate symptoms and even prevent a severe reaction. However, little evidence exists to support the use of herbal treatments in treating food allergies.
Mayo Clinic doctors advise talking to your doctor before taking any herbal remedy. Some herbs can react with current medicines, skew test results, or cause dangerous side effects.
Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, for example, are conducting ongoing clinical trials using a formula called FAHF-2 (derived from traditional Chinese herbs) to treat those aged 12 to 45 who were allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish, and/or shellfish. Phase one of the trial showed that the herbal mixture was well received in study individuals with multiple food allergies.