Itchy and watery eyes, nausea, an attack of endless sneezes—these mild to severe symptoms plague the nearly 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Problem is, most of the time we don't associate these freak-outs with food allergies, so they go unnoticed and untreated.
As more adults are being newly diagnosed with food allergies, it’s still unclear whether these allergies have simply gone unnoticed or have just developed over time, says Paul Bryce, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine, division of allergy-immunology, at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. (Northwestern's Food Allergy Research Consortium recently got a multimillion-dollar boost from generous donors, alumnus Anthony Melchiorre and his wife, Andrea. Read more about the gift here.)
In any case, they're annoying. Allergic reactions to food range from mild skin irritations, coughing fits, nausea, and diarrhea to severe reactions like anaphylaxis, or difficulty breathing; swelling or tightness of the throat; chest pain; trouble swallowing; and dizziness or feeling faint. More extreme cases may require keeping an injectable epinephrine (EpiPen) on hand.
Unfortunately, there's no cure for food allergies, but if you’re noticing recurring symptoms and still don’t know the real culprit, see an allergist. “Food allergies are not something to be taken lightly or diagnosed over the Internet,” says Bryce. “There are tests that can be performed in the clinic and laboratory to determine which foods someone is actually reacting to, and extensive advice on how to respond appropriately when a reaction occurs.”
Whether they force a simple gesundheit or a trip to the emergency room, these five food groups should be in the front of your mind the next time you feel a little funny after noshing on nuts or milking your fridge’s dairy supply.
Approximately 60% of people will experience their first allergic reaction to shellfish as an adult, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). Lobster, shrimp, and crab are the leading causes of allergic reactions, but clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops can also do damage.
Reactions to shellfish tend to be severe and can include symptoms like tingling in the mouth, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, trouble breathing, wheezing, swelling, skin reaction, lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting. If you’re allergic to shellfish, don’t cut salmon or tuna from your diet just yet. You may still be able to enjoy the finned species. A rule of thumb in identifying shellfish allergies: If oysters are making you ill, lobster or shrimp may have the same effect.
If you feel a bit uneasy after your morning cereal or yogurt, chances are dairy is the offender. Not to be confused with lactose intolerance (stomach pain, gas, bloating), an allergy to dairy can be identified by mild skin rash and itchiness or trouble breathing, loss of consciousness, and wheezing in more severe cases. Sensitivity to cow’s milk and other dairy varies from person to person. If you suspect you’re allergic to dairy, try cutting it out of your diet for a week to see if the symptoms disappear.
If you're allergic to one tree nut, chances are you’ll react to them all. Brazil nuts, chestnuts, pecans, macadamias, pine nuts, pistachios, pralines, walnuts and most other nuts fall in this category. (Unlike tree nuts, peanuts are legumes and grow underground but can still cause allergic reactions.) Allergic reactions to nuts can be severe and even fatal. Luckily, you can keep an eye on food labeling to weed out those nuts. The Federal Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) requires food manufacturers to list what types of nuts are used in all prepackaged foods.
It’s hard to avoid this one since it’s the principal grain in the American diet, but wheat allergies can range in reactions from mild skin irritations (hives) to more extreme cases of swelling, itching or irritation of the mouth or throat, nasal congestion, headache, cramps, nausea, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and more. Pastas, breads, cookies, cereals, and crackers are just a handful of the more common food items that contain wheat. But there may also be traces of the grain in ketchup, beer, jelly beans, licorice, and soy sauce. Not to be confused with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, those with wheat allergies may also have reactions to barley, oats, and rye.
Don’t be fooled. Eggs aren’t just a childhood allergy. Occasionally the allergy will carry over into adulthood. That morning omelet may be causing hives, swelling, upset stomach, or a stuffy or runny nose. “The average age of adults [suffering from food allergies] we have found is 31 years old, which I think would surprise many people who typically think of food allergy in children,” says Bryce. Reactions to eggs are rooted in the protein within the entire egg, egg white, or egg yolk. However, if you notice symptoms after eating any part of an egg, avoid eggs entirely.