Food allergies aren’t always something you’re born with. Many believe that once they reach preschool age without a food allergic reaction, both they and their children are out of the woods. Not so, says allergists.
Unfortunately, food allergies can begin at any age. In fact, you can get a food allergy to any food at any age. We can all agree; that’s a bummer!
Unfamiliar with symptoms and without epinephrine, many adults discover their allergy through a reaction. My own father-in-law had enjoyed seafood for decades before having a severe allergic reaction (called anaphylaxis) on an airplane when he was in his forties. Thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean, he was served shrimp – something he had eaten many times before. No sooner had he finished his meal than his symptoms begin: swollen eyes and esophagus, itchy mouth and skin. Thankfully, he made it to their destination with the help of an overwhelming amount of Benadryl. But I think we can all agree, that’s no place to discover a food allergy.
It can be confusing to adults (as well as to their families and friends), when someone can tolerate a food one day and react to it the next. As with all families adjusting to food allergies, there is a huge learning curve that accompanies diagnosis. Adult food allergy patients need to relearn how to shop, cook, order food and – importantly – they must learn to recognize symptoms of allergic reactions including anaphylaxis.
Just as with pediatric food allergies, symptoms range from mild to severe to include:
- Itching or tingling mouth, lips and/or tongue
- Hives, itching skin, eczema
- Swelling of the tongue, throat, lips, eyes, face, or other parts of the body
- Wheezing, nasal congestion or other trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting
Symptoms of a severe reaction (called anaphylaxis) include:
- Constriction of the throat or tightening of the airway
- A swelling or lump in the throat that makes it feel hard to breath
- Shock, a severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Sense of impending doom
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, loss of consciousness
*Emergency medical care is needed if experiencing any symptoms of anaphylaxis. Even after administering an epinephrine auto-injector, seek immediate medical attention.
Busy adults sometimes miss symptoms of food allergies. On occasion, adults experience vomiting without itching, swelling or hives – a symptom which imitates a virus or the flu. After a suspected reaction, adults should meet with an allergist. At their first appointment, patients should also discuss their other medical conditions as well as bring a list of prescription medication they take. Specialists can help decipher between symptoms of one condition and food allergic reactions as well as give advice about any issues with administering epinephrine or taking antihistamines.
Too little is known about why adults develop food allergies. Fifty-one percent of people with food allergies developed at least one as an adult. Approximately 5% of adults live with food allergies in the United States. The most common among them is shellfish (present in 54% of adults with food allergies), followed by tree nuts (43%). But adults suffer reactions to all kinds of food allergens. Although you can truly get a food allergy at any age, most adult reactions occur between ages 30 and 40 and affect women more often than men.
There is an initial emotional burden of being diagnosed with food allergies. This is common. Food allergies can be especially stressful as patients are adjusting to their condition and retraining their behaviors or overcoming a severe reaction. Experiencing anxiety is normal to some degree [please read Managing Food Allergy Anxiety]; however, if the stress and anxiety of food allergies becomes overwhelming, it is recommended that patients reach out to a mental health professional and mention it to their allergist. Both can work to give you practical and easy-to-implement strategies to reduce fears.