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Food Allergy

By

Peter J. Delves

, PhD, University College London, London, UK

Last full review/revision Oct 2020| Content last modified Oct 2020
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Topic Resources

Food allergy is an exaggerated immune response to dietary components, usually proteins. Manifestations vary widely and can include atopic dermatitis, gastrointestinal or respiratory symptoms, and anaphylaxis. Diagnosis is by history and sometimes allergen-specific serum IgE testing, skin testing, and/or elimination diets. Treatment is with elimination of the food that triggers the reaction and sometimes oral cromolyn.

Food allergy should be distinguished from nonimmune reactions to food (eg, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, infectious gastroenteritis) and reactions to additives (eg, monosodium glutamate, metabisulfite, tartrazine) or food contaminants (eg, latex dust in food handled by workers wearing latex gloves). Prevalence of true food allergy ranges from < 1 to 3% and varies by geography and method of ascertainment; patients tend to confuse intolerance with allergy.

Etiology

Almost any food or food additive can cause an allergic reaction, but the most common triggers include

  • In infants and young children: Milk, soy, eggs, peanuts, and wheat

  • In older children and adults: Nuts and seafood

Cross-reactivity between food and nonfood allergens exists, and sensitization may occur nonenterally. For example, patients with oral allergies (typically, pruritus, erythema, and edema of the mouth when fruits and vegetables are eaten) may have been sensitized by exposure to pollens that are antigenically similar to food antigens; children with peanut allergy may have been sensitized by topical creams containing peanut oil used to treat rashes. Many patients who are allergic to latex are also allergic to bananas, kiwis, avocados, or a combination.

Food allergies are more common among children whose parents have food allergies, allergic rhinitis, or allergic asthma.

In general, food allergy is mediated by IgE, T cells, or both:

  • IgE-mediated allergy (eg, urticaria, asthma, anaphylaxis) is acute in onset, usually develops during infancy, and occurs most often in people with a strong family history of atopy.

  • T-cell–mediated allergy (eg, dietary protein gastroenteropathies, celiac disease) manifests gradually and is chronic; it is most common among infants and children.

  • Allergies mediated by both IgE and T cells (eg, atopic dermatitis, eosinophilic gastroenteropathy) tend to be delayed in onset or chronic.

Eosinophilic gastroenteropathy

This unusual disorder causes pain, cramps, and diarrhea with blood eosinophilia, eosinophilic infiltrates in the gut, and protein-losing enteropathy; patients have a history of atopic disorders.

Eosinophilic esophagitis may accompany eosinophilic gastroenteropathy or occur in isolation. Eosinophilic esophagitis is characterized by chronic inflammation of the esophagus and may cause dysphagia, nonacid-related dyspepsia, and dysmotility or, in children, feeding intolerance and abdominal pain. Eosinophilic esophagitis may cause strictures; diagnosis is by endoscopic biopsy.

Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms and signs of food allergies vary by allergen, mechanism, and patient age.

The most common manifestation in infants is atopic dermatitis alone or with gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms (eg, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea). Children usually outgrow these manifestations and react increasingly to inhaled allergens, with symptoms of asthma and rhinitis; this progression is called atopic march. By age 10 years, patients rarely have respiratory symptoms after the allergenic food is eaten, even though skin tests remain positive. If atopic dermatitis persists or appears in older children or adults, its activity seems largely independent of IgE-mediated allergy with a dominance of T-cell–mediated reactions, even though atopic patients with extensive dermatitis have much higher serum IgE levels than atopic patients who are free of dermatitis.

When food allergy persists in older children and adults, the reactions tend to be more severe (eg, explosive urticaria, angioedema, even anaphylaxis). In a few patients, food (especially wheat and shrimp) triggers anaphylaxis only if they exercise soon afterward; mechanism is unknown. Food may also trigger nonspecific symptoms (eg, light-headedness, syncope). Occasionally, cheilitis, aphthous ulcers, pylorospasm, spastic constipation, pruritus ani, and perianal eczema are attributed to food allergy.

T-cell–mediated reactions tend to involve the GI tract, causing symptoms such as subacute or chronic abdominal pain, nausea, cramping, and diarrhea.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Consider food allergy if patients have cryptogenic subacute or chronic abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, cramping, or diarrhea.

Diagnosis

  • Allergen-specific serum IgE testing

  • Skin testing

  • Trial elimination diet (alone or after skin testing or allergen-specific serum IgE testing)

Severe food allergy is usually obvious in adults. When it is not or when it occurs in children (the most commonly affected age group), diagnosis may be difficult, and the disorder must be differentiated from other GI problems. Diagnosis of celiac disease is discussed elsewhere.

Testing (eg, allergen-specific serum IgE testing, skin testing) and elimination diets are most useful in diagnosing IgE-mediated reactions. Patients should keep a food diary, meticulously listing everything they consume and any adverse effects they have, to help guide decisions regarding elimination of suspect foods.

If a food reaction is suspected, the relationship of symptoms to foods is assessed by one of the following:

In either case, a positive test does not confirm a clinically relevant allergy. Both tests can have false-positive or false-negative results. Skin testing is generally more sensitive than the allergen-specific serum IgE test but is more likely to have to false-positive results. The skin test provides a result within 15 to 20 minutes, much more quickly than the allergen-specific serum IgE test.

If either test is positive, the tested food is eliminated from the diet. If eliminating the food relieves symptoms, the patient is reexposed to the food (preferably in a double-blind test) to see whether symptoms recur (oral challenge testing). (See also the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) medical position statement: Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of food allergy in the United States.)

Alternatives to skin testing include one or both of the following:

  • Eliminating foods the patient suspects of causing symptoms based on the patient's food diary

  • Prescribing a diet that consists of relatively nonallergenic foods and that eliminates common food allergens (see table Allowable Foods in Representative Elimination Diets)

For the latter diet, no foods or fluids may be consumed other than those specified. Pure products must always be used. Many commercially prepared products and meals contain an undesired food in large amounts (eg, commercial rye bread contains wheat flour) or in traces as flavoring or thickeners, and determining whether an undesired food is present may be difficult.

A discussion with the patient and observations from the patient's food diary can help with the choice of the initial elimination diet. If no improvement occurs after 1 week of the initial diet, another diet should be tried; however, T-cell–mediated reactions may take weeks to resolve. If symptoms are relieved and if patients have less severe symptoms, one new food is added and eaten in large amounts for > 24 hours or until symptoms recur. But if patients have particularly severe symptoms, small amounts of the food to be tested are eaten in the clinician’s presence, and the patient’s reactions observed. Aggravation or recrudescence of symptoms after addition of a new food is the best evidence of allergy.

Table
icon

Allowable Foods in Representative Elimination Diets*

Food

Diet No. 1

(No beef, pork, fowl, milk, rye, or corn)

Diet No. 2

(No beef, lamb, milk, or rice)

Diet No. 3

(No lamb, fowl, rye, rice, corn, or milk)

Cereal

Rice products

Corn products

None

Vegetables

Artichokes, beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach

Asparagus, corn, peas, squash, string beans, tomatoes

Beets, lima beans, potatoes (white and sweet), string beans, tomatoes

Meats

Lamb

Bacon, chicken

Bacon, beef

Flour (bread or biscuits)

Rice

Corn, 100% rye (ordinary rye bread contains wheat)

Lima bean, potato, soybean

Fruits

Grapefruit, lemons, pears

Apricots, peaches, pineapple, prunes

Apricots, grapefruit, lemons, peaches

Fat

Cottonseed oil, olive oil

Corn oil, cottonseed oil

Cottonseed oil, olive oil

Beverages

Coffee (black), lemonade, tea

Coffee (black), lemonade, tea

Coffee (black), lemonade, juice from approved fruit, tea

Miscellaneous

Cane sugar, gelatin, maple sugar, olives, salt, tapioca pudding

Cane sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, salt

Cane sugar, gelatin, maple sugar, olives, salt, tapioca pudding

* Diet No. 4: If symptoms persist when patients are following any of the above 3 elimination diets and diet is still suspected, daily diet may be restricted to an elemental diet (using extensively hydrolyzed or amino acid–based formulas).

Treatment

  • Food elimination diet

  • Sometimes oral cromolyn

  • Sometimes corticosteroids for eosinophilic enteropathy

Treatment of food allergies consists of eliminating the food that triggers the allergic reaction. Thus, diagnosis and treatment overlap. When assessing an elimination diet’s effect, clinicians must consider that food sensitivities may disappear spontaneously.

Oral desensitization to peanut, using peanut (Arachis hypogaea) allergen powder (defatted) , is available for treatment of people aged 4 to 17 years old who are allergic to peanuts. Oral desensitization begins with 5 incremental doses from 0.5 mg to 6 mg over one day undertaken in a healthcare setting. This initial regimen is followed by up-dosing with a daily dose starting at 3 mg and increasing every 2 weeks over 22 weeks before reaching the maintenance dose of 300 mg once a day. During up-dosing, the day of each increase in dose is undertaken in a healthcare setting. Patients must continue taking peanut allergen powder daily to maintain desensitization, and they still need to maintain a strict peanut-free diet but benefit from a reduced risk of severe allergic reactions (including anaphylaxis) to inadvertently consumed peanut.

Oral cromolyn has been used to decrease the allergic reaction with apparent success. Antihistamines are of little value except in acute general reactions with urticaria and angioedema. Prolonged corticosteroid treatment is helpful for symptomatic eosinophilic enteropathy.

Patients with severe food allergies should be advised to carry antihistamines to take immediately if a reaction starts and a prefilled, self-injecting syringe of epinephrine to use when needed for severe reactions.

Prevention

For many years, avoiding feeding young infants allergenic foods (eg, peanuts) has been recommended as a way to prevent food allergies. However, a recent study (1) showed that early introduction and regular consumption of food that contains peanuts can prevent peanut allergy in infants at high risk of developing this allergy (eg, infants with egg allergy or eczema).

Prevention reference

Key Points

  • Food allergy is commonly mediated by IgE (typically resulting in acute systemic allergic reactions) or T cells (typically resulting in chronic gastrointestinal symptoms).

  • Distinguish food allergy from nonimmune reactions to food (eg, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, infectious gastroenteritis) and reactions to additives (eg, monosodium glutamate, metabisulfite, tartrazine) or food contaminants.

  • If the diagnosis is not clinically obvious in adults or if children are being evaluated, do skin tests, an allergen-specific serum IgE test, or an elimination diet.

  • Make sure patients understand that in an elimination diet, they can eat only foods on the list and only pure foods (which excludes many commercially prepared foods).

More Information

The following is an English-language resource that may be helpful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
ADRENALIN
CROLOM
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