Although seasonal or year-round allergies are common in America, with more than 50 million people experiencing an allergy of some kind, food allergies affect a relatively small percentage of people.

Food allergies are estimated to affect 4% to 6% of children, and about 4% of adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Food allergies usually develop in infants and small children, but like any allergen, they can occur at any age. Foods that you have eaten your entire life without incident can randomly become problematic.

Food allergies sometimes run in families, but it is hard to predict. A thorough allergen testing panel can detect whether your child or children will have a similar allergy.

Common Causes

Similar to other allergies, an allergic response is the body’s defense mechanism for fighting off what it believes to be intruders. This time the allergic reaction occurs due to an immune response to a particular food or a substance in a food. Eight types of food account for about 90% of all reactions:

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Some seeds, including sesame and mustard seeds, can also trigger an allergic reaction.


Food allergies may be mild or severe, and your body’s reaction may change from one occasion to another; it may be mild or barely noticeable the first time, and more severe the next. The most severe reaction, anaphylaxis, is a life-threatening, whole-body allergic reaction that can impair airflow to the lungs, disrupt the heart rate, and cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure. A severe reaction that leads to anaphylaxis can occur within minutes of exposure to the allergen.

Anaphylaxis must be treated quickly with an injection of epinephrine. In worst-case scenarios, anaphylaxis may be fatal. Please seek emergency medical care if any of the below symptoms occur after exposure to an allergen:

  • Tightness in the lungs or trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness, fainting
  • Hives or welts
  • Swelling of the throat, face, lips, or tongue
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting

Treatment Options

If you are aware of your food allergens, you should avoid the foods that cause reactions. This is the best available treatment at the moment. The presence of any of the eight most common food allergens must be labeled on food packaging by law — even if the ingredient is simply an additive or flavoring. These labeling requirements do not apply to meat, poultry, some eggs, distilled spirits, wine, or beer.

The problem is that some of these foods are so common that they can be difficult to entirely exclude from a diet, particularly when eating out. Special cookbooks and support groups are available, however, to ensure that you’re eating foods that won’t trigger your allergen response.

New therapies are also being developed to treat food allergies. Desensitization of some food allergies may be possible, allowing individuals to consume a problem food without experiencing a reaction.