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Food Allergies and Sensitivities: An Overview


It’s affects 6 million children in the U.S. It can be life-threatening. And it’s becoming more widespread.

We’re talking about food allergies.

Childhood food allergies are becoming a growing public health concern, mainly because rates of food allergies appear to be on the rise. That means that a growing number of parents have babies and toddlers who are struggling with food allergies. And it’s likely that some of you, our readers, are dealing with this very thing in your own homes.

But what are food allergies, exactly, and how are they different from food sensitivities, or food intolerances? What causes food allergies? Do they ever go away?

We’ll be tackling those questions (and others) in this article.

Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities vs. Food Intolerances

First, let’s get our terms straight. True food allergies are different than food sensitivities. And both are different than food intolerances. Let’s take a look at the differences between each.

Food Allergies

A true food allergy involves a person’s immune system — a particular food triggers an immunological reaction. True food allergies produce a fast and noticeable reaction, like swelling, hives, tingling of the mouth, shortness of breath, or abdominal cramps.

Some people (a small percentage, usually) have allergies so severe that they experience anaphylactic shock. During anaphylactic shock, a person’s immune system has a hyper-reaction to a particular food and releases an enormous amount of histamine, which causes swelling and inflammation. During anaphylactic shock, a person’s airways can swell shut, causing death within minutes.

Anaphylactic reactions are rare, but most people who suffer from food allergies experience acute and serious reactions if they’re exposed to a trigger food. What’s more, true food allergies can be set off by as little as 1 molecule of a particular trigger food.

Food allergies are quite rare, affecting 1-2% of the U.S. population. Food sensitivities, however, are far more common.

Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities, like food allergies, involve the immune system. In this way, food sensitivities are considered food allergies. But while food allergies produce immediate results, food sensitivities often have delayed symptoms. A person with a food sensitivity may eat a trigger food and not have symptoms for hours, or even days.

What’s more, food sensitivities produce complex reactions in the body. While food allergies usually affect a person’s skin and airways, food sensitivities can affect every organ system in the body. This, combined with the delayed symptoms, make food allergies very difficult to detect and diagnose.

Food sensitivities don’t produce the same kinds of acute, dangerous reactions that food allergies do; the side effects of food allergies are usually more chronic and prolonged. In addition, it takes more than a molecule of trigger food to produce symptoms; some people with food sensitivities have to ingest large amounts of a trigger food before noticing symptoms.

Food sensitivities are more common than food allergies — it’s estimated that they affect 20% – 30% of the U.S. population.

Food Intolerances

Food intolerances are in a different camp altogether. Food allergies and sensitivities involve a person’s immune system; food intolerances don’t.

Rather, food intolerances involve a person’s digestive system. When a person eats a trigger food, her body isn’t able to digest is properly, so it sits in the digestive tract, fermenting and causing gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

The classic example of food intolerance is lactose intolerance. A person who’s lactose intolerant has a hard time digesting lactose, a sugar that’s found in milk and other dairy products. Someone who’s lactose intolerant will develop symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea after eating dairy products.

Food intolerances are quite common. For example, it’s estimated that around 33% of Americans are lactose intolerant.

What Causes Food Allergies and Sensitivities?

Currently, no one knows exactly what causes food allergies. Many food allergy factors are genetic, meaning they’re passed on from parent to child through genetic mutations.

Some people speculate that our modern food (with its many preservatives, additives, and other artificial ingredients) might be to blame. Others wonder if increased hygiene might play a part. They suggest that we’ve become so good at killing germs, our immune systems are less robust and hardy than those of our ancestors, making us more vulnerable to allergies.

There’s probably no definitive cause of food allergies, to be honest. It’s more likely that food allergies are caused by a number of factors. That means causes are complicated (if not impossible) to trace.

What we do know, however, is that food allergies affect far more children than adults (more on that in the next section.) We also know that rates of food allergies and sensitivities are on the rise. A CDC study released in 2008 showed an 18% rise in food allergies from 1997 – 2007; the same study revealed that peanut allergies in children tripled in those 10 years.

Is There A Cure for Food Allergies and Sensitivities?

Unfortunately, no. There’s no “fix” for food allergies and sensitivities, except to avoid foods that trigger the allergy.

There’s good new for parents of children who have food allergies, however — a number of children outgrow their allergies. This is why more children have food allergies than adults — most children outgrow their allergies before they reach adulthood.

About 85% of children will outgrow their milk and egg allergies, and almost all children outgrow allergies to wheat and soy. Almost all of these children will outgrow their food allergies by age 10; many will outgrow the allergy by age 5.

Nut and shellfish allergies, however, are usually considered lifelong. Only 10-20% of children will outgrow these allergies.

Help for Dealing with a Food Allergy

We offered a lot of information in this article, but we didn’t offer many practical tips to help those of you whose babies are struggling with food allergies. Not to worry, though — we can help!  For more information about how to recognize and manage your baby’s food allergies, read the rest of our Food Allergies and Sensitivities series:

Part Two:  Recognizing Your Baby’s Food Allergies

Part Three:  Dairy & Egg Allergies

Part Four:  Nut, Wheat, & Soy Allergies

Part Five:  Handling Your Baby’s Food Allergies

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Does someone in your home struggle with food allergies or sensitivities? What have you done to cope? Share your tips below!

 

 

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2 Responses to Food Allergies and Sensitivities: An Overview

  1. Alana Lyndaker says:

    Allergy symptoms occur when your immune system overreacts to an allergen—something that usually is harmless, such as plant pollen, dust mites, molds, insect stings or food. If you have an allergy, your immune system acts as if the allergen were dangerous, releasing a chemical called histamine that causes allergy symptoms.

    • EmilyDeJeu says:

      @ Alana Lyndaker — you’re absolutely right! Having that info can help parents better understand why their little ones’ bodies react the way they do to allergens.

      Thanks for commenting!

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