Few Food Allergy Facts

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When it comes to food allergy, things aren’t what they seem.

It’s a term often misunderstood and misrepresented, a catch-all for everything from anaphylaxis (a life-threatening reaction to a food) to minor food sensitivities which cause an upset stomach. In truth, food allergy is caused by the immune system reacting to food protein. It’s not the same as a digestive problem. If you are lactose intolerant, for instance, you do NOT have a food allergy. And celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the body reacts to gluten found in wheat and other grains. This is not the same as a wheat allergy. Know the difference. You can find a great explanation of what food allergy is and isn’t here.

As with any medical issue, it’s best to seek advice and testing from an expert if you think food allergy is affecting your family. A board-certified allergist who treats many food-allergic individuals or has a special interest in the issue is best. Do not self-diagnose. If you want to gather information on your own, be very particular about what Internet sites you trust. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network  is one to check out, as is the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology’s site.

I am not a physician. But as the parent of an adult child with life-threatening food allergy to multiple foods, and a parent educator on the subject, I’ve heard it all. Theories about the cause of food allergy abound, as do stories of so-called cures and, sadly, real-life tragedies due to accidental exposures to allergens. The truth is, there is a lot we still don’t know. What we DO know about food allergy, however, is that a little education on the subject goes a long way.

Currently, there is no absolute “cure” for food allergy, but research is very promising for those suffering from peanut allergy in particular. A caution to those tempted to trust homeopathic or other food allergy “cures” from non-licensed “experts”: Don’t. The possible consequences of a food-allergic reaction range from discomfort to death. This isn’t something you play around with. Injectable epinephrine is prescribed by physicians for those with true life-threatening food allergy, but this is used for emergencies; it’s not a cure. Avoidance of offending foods is the only way to remain symptom-free.

So the next time someone bandies about the “food allergic” label, you know what to ask. And when your child’s school requests that you not send in peanut snacks, you will know why. In all cases, remember that an allergic individual’s vigilance is not intended as an inconvenience for others. A little kindness is always appreciated. Food allergy is complicated, but understanding just a little more about it can save lives.

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