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Food Allergies 101

In a cafeteria or at a restaurant, safety is not the first thing on many people’s minds. Yes, we always have to be careful with choking hazards, but usually we just want to catch up with friends or enjoy some alone time. Breakfast, lunch and dinner (and snacks) are ways for our body to get back the energy we use at recess and when studying hard in class. And when we are eating, food doesn’t usually worry us. For some people, this isn’t the case. For some people, food can be very harmful.

 

A food allergy, in scientific terms, is when the immune system reacts poorly after a certain food is eaten. But what is our immune system, and why does it act poorly? Can we tell it to act better? Before answering these questions, let’s look at seasonal allergies and then compare them to food allergies.

 

In the United States, 26% of adults and 19% of children are diagnosed with seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever. This is equivalent to 1 out of 4 adults and 1 out of 5 children. That is a lot! But what does this mean? Well, when at recess, 1 in 5 children can get a runny nose or other symptoms from playing near trees, grass and weeds. There is no reason to get super nervous though as most cases of hay fever are mild. I know it sounds super serious, but there are ways to avoid these symptoms, such as taking allergy medication when it is a bad allergy day. And how do we know when it is a bad allergy day? Scientists can predict pollen numbers and other allergy causing objects, or allergens.

 

Food allergies are similar, yet they have the potential to be much more dangerous. In many cases, there is no medication that someone can take to eat foods they are allergic to. Also, there are many people with food allergies that can have a severe reaction. If these reactions are not treated properly, the person can die. Because of this possible reaction, the number one way to avoid these reactions is to completely avoid the food. 4-8% of children have food allergies, and sadly, this number continues to increase.

 

You may be wondering what causes these food allergies. The cause of food allergies is currently unknown. And the only way to know if you have one is to be tested. Much of the current research is trying to see how food allergies are caused and even how we can get rid of them! While there currently is no cure, some researchers are looking into how we can train our bodies so that if we eat the food by accident, there is a greater chance that the reaction is mild, like getting a runny nose or congestion. To explain how this is done, let’s talk about the immune system.

 

Our immune system is very important as it helps fight infections and diseases. If our immune system defeats an infection, it remembers how it defeated it so it can do it again if needed. This is very powerful. In the case of food allergies, the immune system tries to defeat the food that is ingested by reacting to the proteins inside the foods. We do not know why it does this, but the immune system tries really hard to get rid of the food, and in the process, it could harm the person.

 

There are new studies that let us train the immune system by slowly introducing the food in small increments. Think of it like doing push-ups. When you do your first push-up, it is difficult, however, if you continue to try to do a push-up every day, it gets easier. You can also try to do more push-ups after some time. With food, one can have a little bit of a protein and reach what is called a ‘tolerance.’ This means someone can tolerate the food if they come into contact with it and it is less dangerous.

 

What can WE do to prevent people from getting sick? Well, not everyone has access to the equipment to train our immune system, so some people need to avoid certain foods. We can make everyone safe by not sharing food. When you are at lunch, it is dangerous to share foods with others who have allergies because some people may have a reaction to your food.

 

If you are interested in learning more about food allergies and food allergy safety, please check out FARE’s “Toolkit for Food Allergies in the Classroom” in the following link: https://www.foodallergy.org/resources/food-allergies-classroom

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