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Food allergies- How to Diagnose?

March 06, 2024

There is clinical evidence that food allergies affect 4% of adults and 4-6% of children. Some people outgrow their food allergies as they age. Food allergies are immune-mediated reactions that occur soon after consuming certain foods. The severity of food allergic reactions varies from person to person involving mild to severe symptoms such as lip swelling, hives, and life-threatening symptoms called anaphylaxis. Early diagnosis and avoiding allergic foods in the diet will help in the prevention of allergy-mediated complications.

Major food allergens

A variety of foods can cause allergic reactions in a sensitized individual. The following eight foods were identified as major food allergens by the Food Allergen Labelling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA): milk, eggs, tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans), crustacean shellfish (such as crab, lobster, and shrimp), fish (such as bass, flounder, and cod), wheat, soybeans, and peanuts.

Symptoms of food allergy

Symptoms of food allergy occur within a few minutes to a couple of hours after consuming an allergic food and related food items. 

The common food allergy signs and symptoms include:

  • Hives
  • Itching or tingling in the mouth
  • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, throat, and other body parts
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness

In some individuals, food allergies can lead to a severe stage of an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can cause a coma or even death if left untreated. Therefore, emergency treatment is important for anaphylaxis.

Tests included in the food allergy panel:

A food allergy panel is a combination of tests that check for the most common allergens specific to an individual. As a result, a particular diagnosis is made, and results are provided. The following are the available food panels:

  • Allergy, veg food panel:
    This panel looks for allergies to bananas, chickpeas, gluten, eggplant, aubergine, lemon, lentil, rice, soybean, wheat, papaya, tomato, pineapple, etc.
  • Allergy, non-veg food panel:
    This panel looks for allergies to egg white, egg yolk, fish, beef, chicken pork, salmon, tuna, prawn, etc.

Types of food allergy tests

Before undergoing a food allergy test, healthcare provider will ask you for detailed information about your medical history and the symptoms you are having. There are various types of food allergy tests which your healthcare provider may call for. Based on the symptoms, your healthcare provider will recommend one or more of the following tests:

  1. Skin prick (scratch) test – A few droplets of the suspected food allergen are placed onto your skin and gently scratched, allowing these droplets to enter into your skin. Within 10-15 minutes of exposure, reactions such as skin redness or a rash may occur, if you are allergic to that particular food allergen.
  2. Blood test (IgE) – It measures the level of IgE antibodies in the given blood sample that are developed in response to the particular food being tested.

Interpretation of the results

Positive test result

If the food allergy panel test results were positive, it means you are allergic to that particular food allergen. Even if you are allergic to certain allergens, it is not always necessary that you will have symptoms of allergy. Sometimes, the results of a blood test may also show false-positive results. A false-positive result indicates you have an allergy to certain allergens although you don’t.

Negative test result

If the food allergy panel test results were negative, it means you are not allergic to that particular food allergen.

Treatment for food allergies

When you are aware of foods you are allergic to, the best way to treat food allergies is to eliminate those foods from your diet. To treat your allergic symptoms, your healthcare provider may prescribe the following medications:

    • Epinephrine: It is a life-saving medication used in emergency situations that help in reversing symptoms of anaphylaxis.
    • Antihistamines: These medications reduce symptoms such as itching and congestion.
    • Corticosteroids: These medicines reduce face and lip swellings if you have a severe allergic reaction.

Tips for prevention of food allergies:

There is no permanent cure for food allergies. The best approach to prevent food allergy is to avoid food items that trigger the allergic reaction.

  • Always read labels: Before buying or eating any food items, read the ingredients label thoroughly.
  • Take care while cooking: If you are allergic to a particular food item, to avoid cross-contamination it is advisable, to use separate utensils for cooking and eating.
  • Dine out safely: Before dining out, talk to the restaurant chef and manager about your food specifications.
  • Formulate an action plan: Maintain a food diary and plan for how to manage food allergies before travelling, and always carry your medications with you.

Due to genetic and environmental factors, food allergies are the most prevalent allergies in the world today. Although food allergies cannot be completely cured, their symptoms can be managed effectively with proper medications and avoidance of allergy-causing food substances. Therefore, it is advised to get tested for allergies in order to avoid possible anaphylactic reactions.

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