For many people, allergies are more than just an irritant that causes uncomfortable symptoms like itchy eyes and congestion. April is National Nutrition Month and with allergen sensitivity seemingly more common than ever, it is important to have your children tested not just for environmental allergies, but for food allergies as well. Researchers from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, and this potentially fatal disease affects 1 in every 13 children. A study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that food allergies among children increased more than 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. While the number of people with food allergies is certainly growing, there is no clear answer why.
Environmental allergy reactions can often exacerbate food allergy reactions, causing a need to be on high alert in those affected by the condition. Dr. Grace Chiang with WellStar Medical Group says it is highly beneficial to consult with an allergist on which foods should be avoided and which may be well tolerated. “Food allergies can make it more difficult to get vitamins and nutrients that are an important part of a healthy diet,” she says, which often results in a need to substitute parts of the diet to ensure adequate nutrition. How a food is prepared can also affect a person’s allergy to it. “Some individuals with environmental allergies may experience oral allergy syndrome, with itching of the mouth after consuming certain fresh, pitted fruits,” Chiang explains. “This condition differs from traditional food allergies in that these fruits do not cause symptoms if they are cooked. For example, fresh apples, particularly if the peel is intact, may trigger oral itching, although apple pie or applesauce should be well tolerated.”
It can be difficult to know when to test children for certain allergens, but often, the earlier the better. Children with both food allergies and asthma, eczema or hay fever may have an increased risk of severe or fatal food allergy reactions due to anaphylaxis. It can sometimes seem that major food allergens can be found in almost everything; the eight foods that account for 90 percent of all reactions are milk, peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Fish sauce is often used in most Asian and Thai dishes, soy lecithin can be found in almost all packaged and processed foods and the milk protein casein appears in almost all cereal and granola bars, as well as chips, cookies, breads and baking supplies.
Because these common allergens often sneak into many food products and are restaurant staples, it’s important to know what you and your children are allergic to and to be diligent about what you eat and how it’s prepared. What many people don’t know is that food allergies can begin at any age, and while some (milk, egg and soy) allergies may eventually be outgrown, most (peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish) tend to be lifelong. Strict avoidance and early recognition and management are integral measures in preventing life-threatening allergic reactions.
Better Safe Than Sorry
This time of year, many environmental allergens are out in full force, which can make food allergies seem harder to manage when a reaction occurs. According to Chiang, tree pollen reaches some of its highest levels in the spring, leading to itchy, watery eyes, coughing, congestion and other uncomfortable symptoms. “This can result in significant functional impairment for children and adults. Fortunately, safe and effective treatments are available that can greatly improve quality of life and allow patients of all ages to enjoy being outdoors,” she says.
It’s important to know what you and your family are allergic to, regardless of if environmental or food allergies plague you. Frequency depends on a patient’s age, symptoms and condition, so remaining diligent at the first sign of common allergy symptoms is your first line of defense if you have tested negatively in the past. “With regards to food allergies, testing is often repeated yearly to monitor for interval change in assessing whether a child may be outgrowing their food allergy,” advises Chiang. She explains that while many allergies begin to surface in childhood, you may develop either environmental or food allergies over time. “New allergies may form depending on the region you live in, the climate and types of pollen present. Getting a new pet can also trigger allergies,” she says. “Your body needs to be exposed to an allergen for a certain duration before allergies form, which is why some individuals feel better after moving to a different region for the first few years.”
Allergy care, including skin testing, is accessible to nearly all Cobb residents of all ages, from infants and children to adults. Skin testing in the most accurate way to diagnose both food and environmental allergies. “Special care is taken to perform testing with minimal discomfort while yielding accurate results,” says Chiang. “Skin tests are placed on the back and/or arms, and results are available after 15 minutes.”
Tests can be performed at just about any physician’s office like Chiang’s, in addition to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Town Center site off Big Shanty in Kennesaw per a doctor’s order.
Encourage your schools and businesses to help seek a board-certified allergist to make sure testing remains effective and current. Allergists are best trained to accurately diagnose and treat allergic conditions of all kinds, including asthma, eczema and sinus disease. “An allergist can work with the patient and their family to develop asthma and food allergy action plans, in case a reaction should develop at work or school,” says Chiang. “These can be reviewed with teachers, school nurses and co-workers. Self-injectable epinephrine should be readily accessible for those who may need it, with training on when and how to administer it.”
As the Atlanta weather warms and environmental allergens are in full-swing, make an appointment with your local Cobb County allergist and make sure you and your family are prepared in case reactions occur. Know what to avoid, carefully read food labels and make children’s teachers aware of restrictions to ensure a healthier, happier spring.