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Asthma and Allergies

What You Should Know About Adult-Onset Food Allergies

Photo: Courtesy of James Wei

When people think of food allergies, it’s mostly in relation to children. But recent research has shown that many food-allergic adults (almost half, according to one study) first experienced their allergy when they were adults. The same research also showed that, as with children, the occurrence of food allergies in adults is rising across all ethnic groups.  It is not known why some adults develop an allergy to a food they have previously eaten without problems.

Common adult allergens

The most common food allergy among adults is shellfish, affecting an estimated 3.6 percent of American adults. This marks a 44 percent increase from the 2.5 percent frequency rate published in an influential 2004 study. Similarly, the data suggest that adult tree nut allergy prevalence has risen to 1.8 percent from a 2008 estimate of .5 percent, an increase of 260 percent. 

Having symptoms after eating certain foods does not always mean you have a food allergy or need to avoid that food entirely. For instance, some people experience an itchy mouth and throat after eating a raw or uncooked fruit or vegetable. This may indicate pollen food allergy syndrome – a reaction to pollen, not to the food itself. The immune system recognizes the pollen and similar proteins in the food and directs an allergic response to it.

Diagnosing food allergies

Because many adults believe food allergies only affect children, they may not think to get tested. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), it is important to see an allergist for testing and diagnosis if you are having a reaction to a food and suspect a food allergy.

Adults may not recognize they have a food allergy and believe their reaction is a food intolerance. They might not seek the help of an allergist for diagnosis, but they should. Allergists are specially trained to administer allergy testing and diagnose the results. Once a food allergy is identified, they can tailor a plan specific to your allergies. Use the allergist locator on the ACAAI website to find an allergist near you.

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