Allergist-immunologist Dr. Megan Ford breaks down allergy types, including food and seasonal, as well as how to identify triggers and treatments.
Every year, nearly 50 million Americans have some form of an allergic reaction. While seasonal allergies may cause sneezing and itchy eyes, other allergies can be severe, or even life-threatening. To help us learn more about food and seasonal allergies and how to find treatments that work for you, we spoke with allergy and immunology specialist Dr. Megan K. Ford so you can get back to feeling like yourself.
What does it mean to have an allergic reaction to food?
Thirty-two million adults in the U.S. have a food allergy—an immediate immune system reaction after eating a food. “Food allergies typically occur during or shortly after eating the food,” says Dr. Ford. An allergic reaction to food can manifest in the form of itching, hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea or low blood pressure.
What is the difference between food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances?
While food allergies are associated with immediate and sometimes life-threatening reactions, food sensitivities are considered a self-reported discomfort with the ingestion of certain foods. With food sensitivities, people often complain of digestive problems or other symptoms such as “brain fog” or a headache.
Food intolerances refer to the inability of the body to process or digest certain foods. “You may have heard people saying they have a lactose intolerance, which causes bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort due to lack of enzymes that can break down lactose products. This is not a life-threatening food allergy or a self-reported sensitivity, but an intolerance,” says Dr. Ford.
How are food sensitivities or allergies diagnosed?
To identify a food sensitivity, try removing a food or substance from your diet for two to six weeks. If you no longer have any adverse symptoms, it is likely a sensitivity—your treatment plan is simply removing the food from your diet.
Identifying true food allergies involves diagnostic tests and additional symptom management. This includes strict avoidance—reading labels and informing restaurant staff when you go out to eat—as well as a prescription for epinephrine—a life-saving drug that treats food allergies and is administered with an auto-injector when symptoms of a severe reaction begin to appear.
“Food allergies can be evaluated by an allergist. In the allergy clinic, we discuss prior allergic reactions, perform skin tests, order blood tests, teach people how to use epinephrine auto-injectors and provide food allergy action plans,” says Dr. Ford. “Being told you can no longer eat a certain type of food is never fun. That’s why we primarily conduct these diagnostic methods after someone has experienced an allergic reaction.”
What do indoor and outdoor seasonal allergies look like?
While it may seem implied in the name, indoor and outdoor allergies encompass a variety of potential allergens such as dust mites, cats, dogs, pollen, mold and more. Symptoms for these types of allergies can include post-nasal drip, worsening asthma, coughing, itchy eyes and sneezing.
“Almost 20 million adults in the United States have nasal or eye allergies which are caused by various allergens like pollen, dust mites and household pets,” says Dr. Ford. “Many people come in saying they thought everyone felt like this, but the truth is, you can feel better and improve your daily quality of life. There are treatments available.”
Indoor and outdoor allergy relief start with identifying triggers, implementing avoidance measures and taking over-the-counter allergy medication at the recommendation of your doctor or allergist. “If these more conservative treatment methods don’t work, we can discuss prescription allergy medications and allergen immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots,” says Dr. Ford.
Does allergy relief exist?
If you believe you have indoor, outdoor, or food-related allergies, it’s never too late—or too early—to speak with your doctor or an allergy specialist.
“One of the main reasons I am passionate about this field is because there are many treatment options. The challenging part is letting people know they’re available,” says Dr. Ford. “Diagnosing food and seasonal allergies can save your life. So if you have questions about seasonal allergies, food allergies, or food sensitivities, it’s important to reach out to a specialist.”