You might assume you dodged a food allergy as a kid-but according to the results of a recent study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, almost half of people with food allergies develop them as adults.
The scary part? Mealtime reactions are getting more common. In other words, going HAM on a seafood platter for the first time in a while might carry an unexpected risk.
After analyzing more than 10 years of data, the study authors estimated that about four percent of people deal with food allergies.
"Little is known about exactly how and why exactly allergies develop," says lead study author Ruchi Gupta, M.D. "Adult-onset allergies are particularly interesting to study because they likely involve losing immune tolerance to foods that adults have already been previously exposed to and eaten without having an allergic reaction."
Plus, it's possible to develop an allergy to a food you've never encountered before, Dr. Gupta adds. Allergic reactions are immune system responses that happen when your body mistakenly thinks a food is an invader and tries to destroy, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
More than 160 foods can cause these flare ups. For adults, the most common food allergies are shellfish, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and peanuts-the latter of which men are more likely to have a reaction to than women, the study found.
Food allergies are notoriously unpredictable. A reaction can affect your skin, your respiratory system, digestive tract, and even your heart, depending on where your body releases the cocktail of allergy fighting antibodies and histamines. To further complicate things, the way you react to a food one time might not be the way you react to it the next.
"If you develop specific symptoms associated with allergic attacks within minutes to several hours after eating a particular food, you may have a food allergy," says James Baker, M.D., CEO and chief medical officer of Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). Here are five signs to look out for.
Your skin freaks out
Think: feeling itchy, breaking out in hives, or even an eczema flare up, which causes red, swollen patches of skin to pop up, usually on your hands, feet, and joints. If you notice any red, swollen, or itchy spots on your skin after eating, or if the area around your mouth looks red, it might be a reaction to something on your plate.
Your pulse gets weak
In some cases, a food allergy goes more than skin deep. According to FARE, changes in your blood pressure-like a sudden drop or a weak pulse-can be the work of an allergic reaction. Unless you're taking your blood pressure at every meal, though, you probably won't know if there's a dip. However, if you're feeling faint or have a weak pulse, that can be a sign. Like any allergic reaction, this symptom can go from slightly concerning to serious very quickly, so if you're feeling woozy, don't just brush it aside.
Your mouth malfunctions
An allergy can also cause you to have an itchy mouth or "slight, dry cough," says Baker. This usually happens with fruits or vegetables, which have proteins similar to pollens. According to FARE, the itching is usually limited to your mouth and goes away a few minutes after you've swallowed the offending food.
Your Chest Feels Tight
If you're having difficulty swallowing a meal or have a tight feeling in your chest, you could be experiencing eosinophilic esophagitis.Put simply, food allergens can trigger an immune response that sends massive numbers of white blood cells (called eosinophilis) to your esophagus, which causes it to get inflamed, making your throat feel tight or like food is getting stuck in your windpipe.
You'll have poop problems
If your meal makes you nauseous, gives you a stomach ache, or sends you running to the bathroom, don't immediately call food poisoning or blame it on lactose intolerance-if it happens every time you eat a certain food, it could be an allergy, says Baker.
But here's where it often gets hard to tell if you're dealing with a food intolerance instead, which is typically linked to food-triggered digestive issues, says Dr. Gupta. Unlike allergies, a food intolerance isn't an immune response and generally carries less serious symptoms.
"Adults often have an adverse reaction to a food and simply start avoiding it," Gupta says. It's important to figure out if the reaction is an allergy or an intolerance, so you know whether drinking that glass of milk will simply send you to the bathroom or have a more serious consequence, like the symptoms listed above.
What to do if you think you have a food allergy
If you consistently notice one or more of these symptoms after you eat, enlist the help of a board-certified allergist, who can help diagnose you. "Be ready to report your symptoms and the suspected foods," says Baker. "Your allergist may ask you to keep a food diary, and may order diagnostic tests." If it turns out you are allergic to a specific food, you should be prescribed epinephrine (an Epi Pen) to carry with you at all times, he adds.
You never know when a case of hives could turn into a life-threatening reaction. Even if you've only had mild symptoms, "you should work with your allergist to have a written emergency treatment plan so that you and your loved ones or close friends know what to do in the event of a serious reaction when you may be incapacitated," says Baker.
The writer is a freelance journalist
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