On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness news for all Oklahomans.

Signs You Might Have a Food Allergy

A large-scale medical study recently reported that approximately 3.6 percent of Americans are allergic to one or more foods and that number is growing. Food allergies occur when people consume a certain food that triggers an abnormal response from their immune system. This abnormal response is caused when the immune system recognizes normally safe food proteins as harmful — the symptoms that follow are called an allergic reaction.

Allergic reactions can range from minor to life-threatening and can cause a wide range of symptoms depending on how severely the immune system reacts to foods. Minor allergic reactions can usually be managed with common medications, while severe allergic reactions typically mandate emergency medical intervention.

Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to tell if they’re having an allergic reaction to food. We’re taking a look at the foods that most commonly cause allergic reactions, the symptoms that typically accompany a food allergy and what to do if you believe you’re having an allergic reaction.

Food allergy vs. food intolerance

Did you know the term food allergy is widely overused? Many people believe they have a food allergy when they actually have a food intolerance. The two are commonly confused because they produce some of the same symptoms.

A food allergy causes an immune system reaction that can affect numerous organs in the body every time a certain food is consumed, touched or inhaled — potentially causing life-threatening symptoms. On the other hand, a food intolerance occurs when a certain food irritates the digestive system because your body is unable to properly digest it.

Food intolerances are much more common than food allergies. In fact, almost everyone will experience a negative digestive response after eating at some point in their life. Unlike allergies, intolerances are often dose-related, meaning symptoms may not present until a large amount is eaten or the food is eaten frequently. The most common food intolerance (affecting almost 10 percent of Americans) is an intolerance to lactose, which is found in milk and other dairy products.

Food intolerance symptoms commonly include:

  • Nausea or stomach pain
  • Gas, cramps or bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Irritability or nervousness

Common food allergies

According to the USDA, more than 160 foods are known to cause allergic reactions. However, 90 percent of allergic reactions are caused by just eight foods:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Crustacean shellfish (shrimp, lobster, crab, etc.)
  • Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.)
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat and other grains with gluten (barley, rye and oats)
  • Soybeans

These foods, and any ingredient that contains protein derived from one or more of them, are officially designated as the main food allergens by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act.

Some allergic reactions are more common in either childhood or adulthood. For children, peanuts, milk, soybeans, tree nuts, eggs and wheat are the most common allergies. Most children grow out of their allergies early on in childhood and can begin eating these foods again later on. For adults, fish, peanuts, shellfish and tree nuts most commonly cause allergic reactions.

Pollen-food allergy syndrome

Pollen-food allergy syndrome, also called oral allergy syndrome, is another type of food allergy that commonly affects those who suffer from hay fever. This condition causes many fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices to trigger an allergic reaction that can make the mouth itch or tingle. This reaction happens because proteins found in these foods are similar to proteins found in certain pollens that cause many people’s allergies. Cooking these foods can often lessen the severity of resulting symptoms.

Food allergy signs and symptoms

Food allergy signs and symptoms can range from mild to severe and affect each individual differently. The amount of food necessary to cause an allergic reaction also varies widely from person to person. Allergy symptoms can occur within minutes of being exposed to food allergens or up to several hours later. Not every person will experience all symptoms of an allergic reaction, but common signs and symptoms include the following.

  • Hives or eczema – red, swollen, dry or itchy skin rash
  • Runny or stuffy nose, sneezing or a dry cough
  • Itchy, watery, red eyes
  • Itchy or tingling mouth or inner ear
  • Burning sensation on lips or in mouth
  • Funny taste in the mouth
  • Upset stomach, cramps, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Squeaky voice or slurred speech (common in children)

Signs and symptoms of a more severe allergic reaction include:

  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Swollen lips, tongue or throat
  • Feeling weak, confused or light-headed
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain or weak, uneven heartbeat


People who are severely allergic to certain foods may experience anaphylaxis several seconds or minutes after even minor exposure. Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that can be life-threatening as it affects the entire body. Signs of anaphylaxis include constriction and tightening of the airways, shock, heart palpitations, dizziness or fainting, weak and rapid pulse, low blood pressure, pale skin, flopping motions (especially in children), abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and skin reactions, such as rash or hives.

Anaphylaxis a medical emergency and requires swift emergency treatment. If untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to a coma or even death. Those who know they have a severe allergy to certain foods should always carry injectable epinephrine (commonly called an EpiPen) as it can ease symptoms until a medical facility can be reached.

What to do if you have an allergic reaction

For minor allergic reactions, over-the-counter decongestants and antihistamines (like Benadryl) can usually provide relief. Antihistamines can help prevent and treat symptoms like hives, while decongestants can help clear a congested nose. Both options are usually available in tablet, eye drop or nasal spray forms at your local pharmacy or drug store.

For skin irritation, ice and topical creams that contain corticosteroids can help alleviate swelling, redness and itching. If these over-the-counter allergy solutions don’t do the trick, make an appointment with your doctor.

First aid for anaphylaxis

For severe allergic reactions or anaphylaxis, emergency medical attention is necessary. If someone you know experiences symptoms consistent with anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately. Even if symptoms begin to improve, they can sometimes return.

Steps to take if an individual is experiencing anaphylaxis:

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Locate an epinephrine auto injector (if they have one with them) and help them use it, if needed.
  • Try to keep them calm.
  • Help them lie on their back and raise their feet about 12 inches off the ground.
  • Cover them with a blanket.
  • Turn them on their side if they are vomiting or bleeding.
  • Make sure their clothing is loose so they can breathe easier.

Epinephrine can greatly reduce the effects of a severe allergic reaction and help keep someone stable until they can be seen by a medical professional. So, the sooner epinephrine can be administered, the better. Avoid giving them oral medications, asking them to drink fluids or lift their head, especially if they are having difficulty breathing.

After experiencing anaphylaxis for the first time, a physician can prescribe an emergency epinephrine injector. It’s a good idea to teach your close family members, friends or coworkers how to use the injector in case of an emergency at home, work or in public.

Elimination diets

If you believe you have a food allergy or intolerance but are unsure which foods are causing problems, your doctor may recommend an elimination diet. Elimination diets consist of removing specific foods or ingredients from your diet over the course of a few weeks to pinpoint what is causing your intolerance or allergy. Elimination diets should always be supervised by your doctor and are not recommend for someone who has had a severe allergic reaction or anaphylactic episode.

Your doctor will start by having you stop eating the suspicious food that may be causing the problem while ensuring that you are still getting the appropriate nutrients you need. You’ll need to read food labels carefully and ask any restaurants you visit how foods are prepared. Keep a food diary as you go to write down everything you eat.

After you have eliminated foods from your diet, your doctor will have you slowly add them back into your diet one at a time. This process can help you determine exactly which foods are causing the abnormal reaction. Note any symptoms you experience in your diary as you add foods back.

Next, you’ll eliminate the problem foods again one at a time. Your list of potential food suspects should be smaller with the goal of seeing if eliminating each food makes symptoms clear up or go away permanently.

Allergies can be a nuisance, but they can also be extremely dangerous. Our allergy specialists and immunologists at INTEGRIS take allergies very seriously and can get you the help you need. Learn more about allergies and immunology and find an INTEGRIS facility near you today.