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The Rise in Adult Food Allergies

Posted in Food Allergens,Our Blog on April 4, 2019

You find yourself lurching over the toilet, alternating vomiting and experiencing diarrhea. Not a particularly nice way to begin an article, but be patient: a point is in the making. Sounds like a foodborne illness, but no. This culprit may be a food allergy. Yes, there is such thing as adult-onset food allergies.

Of course the obvious question arises: how to tell the difference between a food allergy and food poisoning. While the former is a reaction (sometimes severe) to a particular type of food or foods, the latter is associated with the consumption of undercooked or contaminated food. Symptoms of a foodborne illness usually occur fairly rapidly (within a range of a few hours to a few days) and worsening over days to weeks). The most typical food poisoning cases are seldom life-threatening and resolve within a few days. Food allergies have the real potential of becoming fatal, especially when combined with a feeling of being unable to breathe or of tightness in the chest.

Food Allergy Symptoms and When to Seek Treatment

Mild or moderate symptoms of a food allergy include the following:

  • Hives
  • Eczema (a persistent, dry and itchy rash)
  • Redness of the skin, especially around the mouth or eyes
  • Itchy mouth or itchy ear
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Nasal congestion or a runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Dry cough
  • An odd taste in the mouth

Severe symptoms include one or more of the following:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, and/or throat that block breathing
  • Turning blue
  • A drop in blood pressure
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain
  • Weak pulse

These symptoms can indicate a life-threatening condition known as anaphylaxis that requires immediate treatment.

Adult-Onset Food Allergies

Some of us may know just what this article is talking about, at least in terms of being baffled by previously being able to consume a particular food and then, without warning, experience some of the symptoms listed above. You’ve eaten this food for years. What gives?

The statistics regarding adult-onset food allergies indicate a variety of food sources to which a great many individuals are allergic. They include:

  • Milk (4.7 million)
  • Peanut (4.5 million)
  • Tree nut (3 million)
  • Fin fish (2.2 million)
  • Egg (2 million)
  • Wheat (2 million)
  • Soy (1.5 million)
  • Sesame (.5 million)

(Source: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago)

Many of us may have a particular food allergy that began in childhood. However, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a study in the first week of 2019 that revealed that in a survey of over 40,000 American adults, an estimated 10.9 percent of these individuals had a food allergy, and almost half had at least one food allergy that developed in adulthood. Additionally, nearly a quarter of them had never had a food allergy in childhood. The study also stated that food allergies have been increasing by as much as twenty percent in the past decade alone.

Ruchi Gupta, a professor of pediatrics at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Northwestern Medicine in Chicago was surprised by the results of this study, stating “You can extrapolate that to say that at least half of adults carry their food allergy into adulthood. And then there’s this additional [group] that are developing newer food allergies as adults.”

Gupta offered the following information as to the rise in adult-onset food allergies, stating, “We think of food allergies as happening in children, and they do, at a rate of about one in thirteen. But I don’t think the US has really talked about how often this happens in adults. Adult food allergies impact one in ten, and half of these are food allergies starting in adulthood.”

Not much research has been conducted on the why of these statistics, and prevalence studies on adult-onset food allergies are needed to help researchers further define the scope of the food allergy epidemic in the US. One postulated theory suggests that the sample of adults surveyed had a food allergy as a child, and now these children have reached adulthood. However, that doesn’t account for the reports that one in four adults reported that they first noticed a food allergy in adulthood after regularly eating foods that were previously harmless to them.

Gupta’s team at Northwestern Medicine is seeking answers and scrutinizing available data to explore the reasons for the rise in adult-onset food allergies. She states that they are focusing on hormone changes such as in pregnancy, as well as genetic and environmental factors such as a change in location or even viral and bacterial causation.

Oral Allergy Syndrome

One of the more pronounced effects of a food allergy is a reaction known as oral allergy syndrome. It is estimated that more than sixty percent of all food allergies are actually cross-reactions to pollen allergies and can be traced back to an allergy to various types of tree and grass pollen, resulting in acute rhinitis. Fruits and vegetables that can cause oral allergy syndrome include cherries, nectarines, peaches, apples, pears, mangoes, avocados, strawberries, bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, cucumbers, corn, walnuts, peanuts, and soy. The symptoms of this syndrome only happen after eating specific foods and the symptoms can vary significantly from person to person. They can also peak at different stages of an individual’s life.

Mild symptoms can include:

  • Itching of the throat, mouth, lips, or tongue
  • Swelling of the throat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Hives and/or asthma

What to do if You Suspect You Have a Food Allergy

Don’t self-diagnose. It’s better to see a certified allergist. If you think you have an allergy to a specific food, keep a journal or diary of everything you eat for a couple of weeks, and include your symptoms, if any, after you eat that food. Your allergist is an expert and can figure out if you have food allergy or food intolerance. Food intolerances can be uncomfortable or annoying, but allergies have the potential to be life-threatening. Worse, you could have an even more severe reaction the next time you eat a certain food. Your physician can prescribe medications to treat symptoms, which can include an epinephrine injector, which can halt a life-threatening reaction. And if you ever need, a good food allergy lawyer, we got your back.

By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)