Can you prevent food allergies?

There is no recognized cure for food allergies – but there is hope.

Although, you can do things to reduce a child’s risk of developing them and help prevent allergic reactions at any age [1]. Substances that trigger allergic responses are also known as allergens – being around allergens as a baby was previously considered to raise the risk of food allergies. Although more recent studies indicate that exposure to them at an early age can help to prevent allergies from developing [2]. 

The FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) has consented to treatment for children with a peanut allergy to lessen the chances of severe allergic reactions [3]. Food allergies can run in your family, suggesting you may be more likely to develop them if you inherit specific genes from your parents [4]. 

As stated by the AAAAI (American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology), around 8% of children have a food allergy [5]. Of those, about 40 per cent have had a severe reaction. A food allergy occurs when the body responds to a specific protein, usually momentarily after food is ingested [6]

What is a food allergy?

Food allergies happen when your immune system misunderstands harmless food proteins or allergens as destructive, activating a reaction to them.

Peanut allergies are one of the most typical food allergies and affect around 1.2% of the US population [7]. Approximately 90% of allergic reactions to food are from peanuts or one of the seven other food allergens such as fish, eggs, milk, tree nuts (hazelnut), shellfish, soybeans and wheat [89]. In addition, the FDA also mandates food manufacturers to list sesame as a significant allergen in 2023. 

Manifestations of food allergies often develop soon after eating the triggering food and can vary from mild to life-threatening. Depending on the kind of allergy, signs can also appear considerably later on and can comprise of: 

  • anaphylaxis
  • feeling dizzy lightheaded
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • hives
  • itchy eyes
  • itchy red rashes
  • sneezing
  • stomach pain or diarrhea
  • swollen lips or face
  • swollen throat and difficulty swallowing
  • wheezing or difficulty breathing 
Photograph: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Anaphylaxis, also known as anaphylactic shock, can cause breathing complications and low blood pressure. It’s a potentially life-threatening intense allergic reaction and, if not addressed, can cause impairment to your organs and lead to a heart attack. If you’re at risk of anaphylaxis, your physician may give you an epinephrine pen to carry with you. 

While some symptoms may coincide, food allergies differ from food intolerances, where your body can’t process or digest certain foods. If you react to eating a certain food, you should see a doctor who can evaluate if it may be an allergy.

Can you prevent food allergies from developing?

Several factors can play a part to whether you develop a food allergy. You’re more likely to have an allergy if a close relative has one, which implies that your genes play a part. Scientists have long considered the early years important in allergy development [10].

For many years, scientists believed that babies exposed to possible allergens had a more increased chance of developing allergies later in life — but more recent research points to the contrary.

Scientists have seen that babies at risk of developing allergies to certain foods (peanuts or eggs) are less expected to do so if they’re exposed to the allergen in their six months of life [11]. 

Studies have also found that individuals at a high risk of developing these food allergies are less likely to have reactions later in childhood if they had exposure to the allergens as babies. If you have basis to believe your child may have an allergy or are at risk of developing one, you should speak to your doctor, who can advise you on the best way to familiarise common allergenic foods to build a tolerance. 

It’s also essential to steer clear of giving small children foods that are choking hazards (whole peanuts) or any that are equivalent to foods you already know cause an allergic reaction. There is some early proof connecting imbalances in the gut microbiome and food allergy development. 

Your gut microbiome is the assembly of bacteria and other microbes in your gut. Studies have found that the gut microbiome of individuals with food allergies differs from those without them. In contrast, scientists need to investigate more to find out if altering the microbiome can successfully prevent food allergies from occurring.

How to treat food allergies?

As mentioned, there is no cure for food allergies, but there are remedies to help address its symptoms. Healthcare professionals may recommend over-the-counter antihistamine tablets for minor allergic reactions like an itchy throat. Depending on the response, these often clear symptoms within a couple of hours. 

Your doctor will authorise an epinephrine pen or EpiPen for severe allergic reactions like anaphylaxis. This contains adrenaline that counteracts the anaphylactic response, which you administer yourself.

The FDA also recently endorsed an oral treatment for children aged 4 to 17 with a peanut allergy [12]. A clinical trial with 500 participants displayed that two-thirds of those who received the treatment could tolerate peanuts (600 milligrams) with only a mild allergic reaction, contrary to the other group that received the placebo, 4 per cent could handle this same amount of allergen. 

Scientists are also working towards other treatments for food allergies. Before taking any medicine – even over-the-counter ones, constantly check with your doctor about the best treatment.

How to prevent allergic reactions to food?

For existing food allergies, avoiding the allergen is the most helpful way to lessen the risk of a reaction. It’s probabl to have an allergic reaction to tiny amounts of an allergen.

Even if your food allergy is minor and you feel you can ‘take it,’ you should avoid the allergen. Consuming something you’re allergic to can lead to more harmful reactions over time and put you at more eminent risk of developing other allergic conditions. 

Correspondingly, food allergies can come in groups. If you are allergic to one protein, you might be allergic to other foods with similar proteins. For example, people allergic to one type of fish have about a 50 per cent chance of being allergic to another [13].

You can also take several proactive steps so cooking and dining out can be a more relaxing and safer experience: 

  • Ask straightforward questions about menu items. Recipes can change, some ingredients may contain hidden allergens, and cross-contamination can occur in kitchens.
  • Avoid unpackaged foods and buffet-style restaurants where contamination may be less regulated. 
  • Bring at least a dose of your prescription with you at all times. 
  • Carry an allergy card to share with coffee shops, restaurants, coffee shops and anywhere you eat and tell staff clearly about your allergy and how severe it is. 
  • Read food labels carefully for components and anti-allergy cautions.
  • Wash any shared pots, pans or kitchen utensils thoroughly after each use.
  • Write down a list of actions to take in the event of an allergic reaction, so you and others around you know what to do in case of an emergency.

Remember that avoiding the allergen is the only way to prevent a reaction if you already have an allergy. You should see your doctor if you suppose your child may have a food allergy. 

[1] https://joinzoe.com/learn/how-to-prevent-food-allergies
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4909486/
[3] https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-approves-first-drug-treatment-peanut-allergy-children
[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29374367/
[5] https://www.aaaai.org/
[6] https://healthier.stanfordchildrens.org/en/how-parents-can-help-prevent-food-allergies-in-kids/
[7] https://www.ajmc.com/view/the-economic-impact-of-peanut-allergies
[8] https://acaai.org/allergies/allergic-conditions/food/
[9] https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/food-allergies
[10] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fped.2020.00448/full
[11] https://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(19)31031-0/fulltext
[12] https://bit.ly/3AlvbOy
[13] https://www.kidswithfoodallergies.org/food-allergies-and-cross-reactivity.aspx

Photograph: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels

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The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.