Could You Have A Food Allergy & Not Know It?

Walk into any typical college cafeteria and you’ll see the usual assortment of greasy (but tempting) pizzas, warm cookies, frozen yogurt, cereals and more. For some, it’s a cornucopia of deliciousness. For others, it’s a quick ticket to the worst stomachache of your life. While everyone gets an upset stomach every now and then from overindulging at the sundae bar, constant stomachaches could be a sign of something more—a food allergy. Many college students are already aware of their food allergies when they get to campus, but food allergies can also pop up during adulthood. We talked to FARE, Food Allergy Research and Education, an organization committed to ensuring the safety of those with food allergies and finding cures, about what to do if you suspect you have a food allergy and how to deal with it.

What’s a food allergy?

A food allergy means your immune system overreacts in response to a certain food protein, says Veronica Brown, a spokesperson for FARE. There are eight foods that account for 90 percent of all food allergies: milk, egg, soy, peanut, tree nuts, shellfish, fish and wheat. That other ten percent could be anything—seeds, corn, gelatin, even meat—but those are much more rare. Many food allergies pop up during childhood—you probably remember having to be careful about peanuts in elementary schools. But for some, food allergies can develop at any time. “While many food allergies are outgrown in childhood, others don’t develop until adulthood. For example, studies show more than half of those with a shellfish allergy experience their first allergic reaction as adults,” Brown says. Doctors still don’t know why this happens, but it’s not at all uncommon. “I'm allergic to almonds, macadamia nuts and poppy seeds (but I try to stay away from all tree nuts) and I actually didn't find out until college,” says Elyssa, a Boston University collegiette.

A quick distinction between an allergy and a food intolerance. You’ve probably heard of lactose intolerance and Celiac disease (people who actually have to be gluten-free)—these are not food allergies, but rather a sensitivity to a certain food. A food allergy also has to do with the immune system—you have an allergy if your immune system overreacts to a certain protein. However, much of the following advice applies to those sufferers as well.

Do I have a food allergy?

There are many tip-offs that could indicate you have an allergy to something you’re eating. But, Brown warns, reactions are unpredictable: “Someone could experience multiple reactions with only mild symptoms, then suddenly experience anaphylaxis with their next reaction,” she says. “Symptoms of an allergic reaction can range from mild symptoms (for example, rash, itching or isolated hives) to severe symptoms, such as wheezing, trouble breathing or anaphylaxis, a serious reaction that can occur suddenly and can be potentially fatal,” Brown says. “Individuals with milk allergy can experience mild or severe symptoms, including anaphylaxis, just as someone with a peanut allergy can,” Brown says. Unsure if your stomachache is from your cheese pizza or just the flu? Start a food diary. “If you suspect a food allergy, it’s a good idea to take note of those symptoms, when they are occurring, and the ingredients in the foods eaten,” Brown says.

What do I do if I think I have an allergy?

If you’re experiencing intestinal problems like diarrhea, vomiting or stomach pain, consider an elimination diet. Basically, if you suspect you’re allergic to dairy based off of your food diary, cut out all milk, cheese and ice cream for one or two weeks. See if your symptoms go away. After you’ve cut out the suspect for a while, re-introduce it. If your symptoms come back, see a doctor to get a formal diagnosis. If you’re experiencing more life-threatening symptoms like trouble breathing, don’t do an elimination diet. Set up an appointment with an allergist, a specialist who can help you pinpoint exactly what’s affecting you, and bring your food diary to help her diagnose you. Your student health center or your primary care provider can point you in the right direction. “An allergist can determine whether food allergy testing is appropriate, and if you do have an allergy, your allergist can prescribe medication, such as an epinephrine auto-injector, to help you treat allergic reactions,” Brown says.

The next step will often be a skin prick test, which is a simple procedure where an allergist will place a tiny bit of the suspected allergen onto your skin and then prick your skin to let the allergen in. Food allergies do not have cures, per se, but avoiding the food in question is the best way to stay symptom-free. Sometimes, allergies will go away as you get older, but not always. A Lactaid pill will not help a dairy allergy like it will lactose intolerance — if there’s any doubt, don’t self-diagnose: seek out an allergist who can confirm an allergy.