Many adults don't realize they can develop an allergy after leading an allergy free life for years. Consequently, as we age we tend to minimize developing food allergies by regarding them as food conflicts. Maybe you know people that say "Oh I like it but it doesn't like me!" We under report food allergies choosing instead to ignore, self diagnose or avoid trouble foods.

Rhonda's Story

Rhonda, a 60 year old woman, had always been allergic to bees. Now she began reacting to other things. She broke out in rash and hives after handling or eating shrimp. A year later she reacted to lobster. Given past experience she was cautious when her husband brought home crab. She didn't break out while rinsing it so she supposed her food conflict was related to the other shellfish and she enjoyed the crab dinner. Twenty minutes later she felt a burning sensation then an itching around her waist. She thought a shower would help the discomfort but by the time she got wet the sensation was up to her neck. Soon her tongue swelled so much she couldn't talk and then anaphylaxis kicked in. She survived that frightening experience but now reacts when simply touching seashells. Restaurants that serve fish are off her list and she vigilantly watches for shellfish buried in food ingredients.

Fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts are the allergens most apt to trigger anaphylaxis in adults. Wheat and shellfish can also cause exercise induced anaphylaxis. Exercise before eating the allergen or up to 4 hours afterward trigger the crisis. All allergens can progress from mild to severe. All allergens can become deadly. A previous allergic reaction doesn't necessarily predict how the next allergic reaction will unfold.

Known cases of adult food allergy affect 1 in 25 or approximately 9 million people and the number is rising. Perhaps you've noticed more people reading labels in the grocery aisle and more foods that are allergen free. By law, foods must clearly note if they contain any of the 8 main allergy groups: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, and soy.  However, like Rhonda, some adults become so sensitized to foods that they react even to an allergen free food that was manufactured on a line or in a facility that processed the allergen where accidental cross contamination occurred. Manufacturers aren't bound by law to declare that danger.

Living with any of the 8 major allergens requires lifestyle changes. Perhaps the hardest main 8 allergen to avoid is soy. Soy is in everything from grocery receipt ink to vitamins and nearly all processed foods. Though manufacturers must declare soy they don't have to call it soy if it's a component in another ingredient. Soy is a hidden in 75 other ingredient names including carob, gum arabic, natto, glycol, monotryglyceride and uno-hana.

Jean's Story

At 55, Jean suddenly broke out in a facial rash her doctor identified as atopic eczema. It was an allergy what? Her doctor prescribed an over the counter anti-histamine for the allergy and steroidal creme for eczema but each medication intensified the rash. A food journal and,weeks of trial and error revealed to Jean, who had a mild intolerance to corn but no other prior food conflicts, that she had a soy food allergy. Through online research she learned that soy was a hidden ingredient in most everything she consumed including the medications her doctor had prescribed for her! Now she relies on soy-free labeling and rarely eats out because of heightened sensitization to soy cross contamination.

Food intolerances mimic allergies but usually involve only the digestive system. Most importantly, food intolerance can't cause anaphylaxis though it will can cause symptoms such as gastric distress, joint pain, and headaches. Intolerance to gluten, a protein in wheat, or lactose, a sugar in milk, doesn't necessarily mean that a wheat or milk allergy is present. Likewise gluten free foods may not be wheat free and wheat free foods may not be okay for gluten intolerance. People with food intolerances often live with the condition for several years before seeking medical advice.

Right now, science knows little about what causes the body to mark common foods for attack. Genetics seem linked to increased risk. Changes in our diets, germ free environments, stress, depression, and pollution can be factors.  "The reality," says OB/GYN  Marcelle Pick, "is that allergies and sensitivities almost never occur in isolation." In fact, allergies can be connected with other health problems like asthma, eczema, and Fibromyalgia to name a few. Some practitioners contend that food allergies are implicated in the onset of migraines or mental health problems. Allergy research, such that it is, mainly centers on childhood allergies so adult onset is less understood by most doctors.  Consequently, internet sites and blogs developed by people living with allergies are the chief resources for reconstructing a diet suddenly transformed when the body reacts symptomatically to food.

Observation shows us that adults don't outgrow food allergies like children sometimes do.  In addition allergic reactions can be more severe in adulthood.  Given the lack of medical knowledge and the difficulty doctors have in addressing food allergy concerns how can we prepare retirement and assisted living facilities or nursing homes to cope with the needs of diets severely restricted by food allergy? Will nursing staff recognize food allergy symptoms at onset? Will cooks be willing to read the fine print on labels and learn how to identify allergens hidden by alternative names? When we can no longer drive will products free of major allergens be available in stores close enough to us? Sudden adult onset food allergies are on the rise but how are we preparing to deal with them? 

The silver lining in food allergies is that they're usually manageable and may benefit us by motivating greater attention to diet and nutrition.  Food allergies increase awareness of what's in our processed foods and inspire some to advocate for better labeling and purer products that benefit us all. But food allergies, left uncontrolled, can be life threatening. If you have a reaction to food it may be more than a conflict or intolerance. Pursue research and see a doctor. If you're living with a food allergy please leave a comment. Your advice maybe the best guide available for someone seeking food allergy information.