How Food Allergies Affect Skin

Woman looking at her face in the mirror
Food allergies occur when our immune system responds defensively to a specific food protein that, in reality, is not harmful to the body. The first time you eat this food, the immune system will create disease-fighting antibodies (called immunoglobin or IgE). When you eat the food again, these antibodies will become active and release large amounts of histamine in an attempt to expel the ‘foreign invader’ from the body. The histamine can affect different parts of the body, including the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal tract, the cardiovascular system and the skin. But how exactly do these histamines affect the skin and what can we do to treat and prevent outbreaks?

Hives and angioedema are two common skin conditions that result from allergic reactions. Hives, or urticarial, are red, itchy, raised areas of the skin. They can range in size and appear anywhere on your body. Most cases will go away within a few days or weeks. An allergist may prescribe antihistamines to relieve symptoms, however, if the cause can be identified, it is best to avoid that trigger. Angioedema commonly occurs with hives but can occur on its own as well. It is swelling that affects the deeper layers of sin. It is not red or itchy and commonly affects eyelids, lips, tongue, hands and feet.

Dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin the produces a scaly, itchy rash. Atopic dermatitis is also known as eczema, and is defined as a chronic skin condition that usually begins in infancy and early childhood. It is often associated with a food allergy, allergic rhinitis and asthma. While most food allergy reactions occur within minutes or hours of ingestion, people who develop eczema as a symptom a food allergy may experience a more delayed reaction, spanning 4 to 6 hours or longer. Outbreaks may be treated by applying cold compresses, creams and ointments including corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatory creams. Scratching or rubbing the rash should be avoided. Antihistamines can also be prescribed as well as oral corticosteroids in more severe cases. Of course, the best cure is prevention, so if a food is identified as the cause of an outbreak, it should be eliminated from your diet.

woman inspecting food
Food allergies may appear at any age, though most start in childhood. Common triggers for food allergies include milk, eggs and peanuts in children. Adults are likely to be allergic to fruit and vegetable pollen, peanuts and tree nuts, and fish and shellfish. If you suspect you may be allergic to certain foods, you may want to see an allergist who will take your family and medical history and decide which tests to perform.

For food allergy sufferers, it is recommended that you carefully check ingredient labels of food products and learn whether what you need to avoid is known by other names. The Food and Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 mandates that manufacturers of packaged goods produced in the United States, identify the presence of the eight most common food allergens in clear, simple language on the food packages. However, some foods with these allergens are so common that avoiding them is daunting. For people with problems avoiding food allergens, there are special cookbooks and support groups in person or online, that can provide useful information. Dietitians and nutritionists can also be helpful.

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