Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2008;77(12):1687-1688

See related article on food allergies.

What are food allergies?

A food allergy is when your body has a reaction to a certain food. This reaction is caused by your body's immune system, which is what protects you from diseases. You might have a minor reaction (for example, hives or itchy skin or lips). You could also have a more serious reaction (for example, your throat or tongue may swell, or you may feel dizzy, get sick to your stomach, or vomit). Some reactions can be life threatening.

Who gets them?

They are more common in babies, but children and adults can also have them. You are more likely to have a food allergy if you or a family member has had hay fever, asthma, food allergies, or eczema (ECK-zeh-mah).

Which foods cause them?

Any food can cause an allergy. But, children are most likely to be allergic to cow's milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts, and soy products (for example, tofu). Adults are most likely to be allergic to peanuts, tree nuts (for example, Brazil nuts), shellfish (for example, shrimp, crab, and lobster), and fish.

How do I know if I have one?

Talk to your doctor. If your doctor thinks you have an allergy, he or she may do blood or skin tests. You may need to see a doctor who specializes in allergies for more testing or treatment.

What should I do if I have a food allergy?

Check the labels of all foods to see if they contain foods you are allergic to. You should also use separate utensils to prepare your food. If you are allergic to eggs, you should avoid pastries, cakes, cookies, and egg substitutes. If you are allergic to milk, you should avoid dairy products (for example, cheese, butter, some margarines, and yogurt). If you are allergic to soy, you should avoid soy sauce, soy protein, and tofu. If you are allergic to peanuts, you should avoid peanuts and peanut oil, which is used to make some foods. You should also avoid sundaes, pastries, and candies that have nuts.

Can I still eat at restaurants if I have a food allergy?

Yes, but you should avoid sauces, casserole dishes, desserts, stuffed meat, and fish dishes. Try to order simple foods, such as meat slices in their own juice or steamed vegetables. You should ask the server about what is in the food and how the food is made.

What do I do if I have an allergic reaction?

Your doctor can give you a shot of adrenaline (called epinephrine) if you have a bad reaction. If you have bad reactions, you need to carry these shots with you. You should also wear a medical identification bracelet that describes your allergy. If you have a minor reaction, such as a rash or itchy skin, you can take medicine to help with your symptoms.

What should I do if I am going to be far from my doctor's office or hospital?

If someone else will be doing the cooking, be sure to tell him or her what foods you are allergic to. You may also want to teach a friend, relative, or co-worker how to give you an epinephrine shot in case of an emergency. If you have a bad allergic reaction, you should go to the emergency department of a hospital right away, even if you feel better after an epinephrine shot. If you are really far from the hospital, you may need more than one shot. Be sure to carry a couple of shots with you, depending on how far you are from the nearest hospital.

Where can I get more information?

American Academy of Family Physicians

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network

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