Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;59(2):429-430

See related article on food allergy.

Many of the things we think we know about food allergy are really just myths—stories that are commonly known but aren't based on science. This handout will help you learn the facts about food allergies.

Myth Number 1: Food allergy is very common

Fact: Although 25 percent of people think they're allergic to certain foods, studies show that about only 6 percent of children and 1 to 2 percent of adults have a food allergy.

Myth Number 2: Most people with food allergies are allergic to strawberries and tomatoes

Fact: Babies and young children are most often allergic to milk, eggs, wheat, soybean products and peanuts. Older children and adults are most often allergic to peanuts, tree nuts (like walnuts, almonds and cashews), fish and shellfish.

Myth Number 3: Some people are allergic to sugar

Fact: A condition is called a food allergy when the immune system (the part of the body that fights infections) thinks a certain protein in a food is a “foreign” agent and fights against it. This doesn't happen with sugars and fats.

Myth Number 4: Milk allergy is very common and causes diarrhea in adults

Fact: Many adults have trouble digesting the sugar in milk. This is called “lactose intolerance.” It isn't a true allergy.

Myth Number 5: People with food allergies are allergic to many foods

Fact: Most people with food allergies are allergic to less than four foods.

Myth Number 6: Food allergy makes people hyperactive

Fact: The most common “sudden” symptoms of food allergy are hives (large “bumps” on the skin), swelling, itchy skin, itchiness or tingling in the mouth, or a metallic taste, coughing, trouble breathing or wheezing, throat tightness, diarrhea and vomiting. There may also be a feeling of “impending doom”—a feeling that something bad is going to happen, pale skin because of low blood pressure, or loss of consciousness (fainting). The most common chronic illnesses associated with food allergies are eczema and asthma.

Myth Number 7: Allergy to food dye is common

Fact: Bad reactions to food dyes are rare. They may occur in less than one of 100 children and in less than one of 500 adults.

Myth Number 8: Food allergy is lifelong—or is always outgrown

Fact: Allergies to milk, eggs, soybean products and wheat are usually “outgrown.” However, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are rarely outgrown. Once a true food allergy is diagnosed, it may be very hard to avoid the food causing it. If you have an allergy, you must read the labels on all the prepared foods you eat. Your doctor can help you learn how to avoid eating the wrong foods.

Myth Number 9: Food allergy is not dangerous

Fact: Food allergy can be fatal if it causes a reaction called “anaphylaxis” (say: anna-phil-ax-iss). This reaction makes it hard for a person to breathe. Fast treatment with a medicine called epinephrine (say: epp-in-eff-rin) can save your life. If you have an allergy, your doctor might give you a prescription for epinephrine in small, pre-filled syringes. Your doctor can show you how to use them and tell you when to use them. If your doctor thinks you might need to use this medicine, you'll need to carry a syringe with you at all times.

A person having an allergic reaction should be taken by ambulance to a hospital emergency room, because the symptoms might start again even after epinephrine is given. They might start again hours later.

If your child has food allergies, you can give the school and other caretakers instructions that list the foods to be avoided and tell what to do if the food is eaten accidentally.

Additional Information

The Food Allergy Network can send you a newsletter, information on food allergies for families and schools, updates on commercial foods that might be contaminated with unwanted food proteins, and other information about food allergy.

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Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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