Unlike, say, cat allergies or seasonal allergies, which can usually be managed with readily available over-the-counter and prescription treatments, food allergies can require years of self-education and experimentation to find a system that works.
Gwen Smith, founder of the news website Allergic Living, first suspected she had food allergies in her 30s, when she got hives after eating shrimp. By the time a friend drove her to a hospital less than 10 minutes away. “I could barely breathe,” Smith says. “They had the crash cart, and my blood pressure was dropping.” After getting diagnosed with shellfish and soy allergies, she realized she’d had symptoms before-but she had mistaken them for signs of the flu, food poisoning, or stomach trouble. “Now I know to think, ‘How long ago did I eat? Could this be related?'”
People with food allergies produce antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE), which can trigger a range of symptoms, including digestive problems, itching, hives, wheezing, and sometimes life-threatening anaphylactic shock. The risk of getting a severe reaction can provoke anxiety, says Corrine Keet, MD, PHD, a pediatric allergist-immunologist at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine.
For many parents, guarding against these reactions in their food-allergic children is a daily task. “Everything was a scrutiny for us,” says Nina Aggarwal of Foster City, California, whose 8-year-old had an anaphylactic reaction to an egg during infancy. “We had to read every label. I would pack him a picnic everywhere we went. It was very isolating,” Alicia Bales of Los Angeles remembers discovering her 2-year-old’s food allergies and feeling like no one else was worried. “It felt like my son’s diagnosis was invisible,” she says. “I could watch him really carefully all the time, but I didn’t think other people would be as careful.”