What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is an immune system response to an otherwise harmless food or food component, usually a protein. The body reacts by flooding the system with histamines and other chemicals to fight off what is perceived as an invader in the body. A reaction to a food that does not involve the immune system is called a food intolerance or sensitivity (for example: lactose intolerance).

Food allergies are rare. Between 1 and 2% of American adults have a food allergy, according to food allergy experts. These can be caused by more than 170 foods. The most common and severe food allergies are caused by milk, eggs, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy.

Experts estimate that as many as 5 to 8% of American children may have a food allergy. The most common food allergies among children are milk and egg. Fortunately, children outgrow most food allergies. However, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish usually are lifelong.

It is important to consult a board-certified allergist if you suspect you have a food allergy. Allergists can accurately diagnose the allergy and prescribe medication for its treatment.

Food allergy reactions
Most allergy sufferers experience fairly mild reactions to a food allergen. Symptoms can include varying degrees of hives, swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing and vomiting. A small number of food allergy sufferers are susceptible to severe and potentially fatal anaphylactic shock.

Anaphylaxis can constrict the airways in the lungs, severely lower blood pressure, and swell the tongue or throat, among other symptoms. Anaphylaxis is rare, but can be fatal if not treated immediately. It can be caused by foods, insect stings and medications.
The Centers for Disease Control reports 10 deaths in 1998 (the last year for which data is available) due to food allergies. In comparison, 46 people died in 1998 from hornet, wasp, or bee stings.

Food allergy treatments
There is currently no treatment to prevent a food allergy reaction — the only certain way to prevent a reaction is strict avoidance. To this end, individuals with food allergies must diligently read food labels. When eating food prepared by others (i.e. at a friendâs house or in a restaurant) food allergy sufferers must ask about the ingredients and preparation of the food before eating.

Food allergy sufferers should always carry self-injectable epinephrine in the event that a reaction does occur. Immediate injection of epinephrine can temporarily arrest symptoms until full medical treatment is available. In the event of a reaction, the sufferer should seek medical attention immediately — even if a dosage of epinephrine appears to have halted the attack.

Peanut allergies
The real danger for peanut allergy sufferers appears to be accidental consumption of peanut products, although mild reactions may occur if peanuts come into contact with the skin.

Approximately one-half of one percent of the American population has an allergy to peanuts. Only one-tenth of one percent of the American population is believed to be subject to a life-threatening peanut allergy. For the remainder of the population, peanuts and peanut butter continue to be a popular, nutritious and economical food.
The U.S. peanut industry does not want anyone to ever be harmed by our product. That is why we support full disclosure labeling on food products and sponsor training programs for peanut product manufacturers.

Because there is currently no "cure" to eliminate the peanut allergy, the U.S. peanut industry also helps fund university research which already has identified the proteins responsible for the allergic reaction. Researchers are now attempting to eliminate these proteins from peanuts altogether. Human trials also have begun on a peanut allergy vaccine to mitigate the severity of the reaction.

Helpful Links
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network
Food Allergy Research and Resource Program
International Food Information Council Foundation
American Peanut Council
Southern Peanut Growers