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What is the treatment for a food allergy?

The long-term treatment plans for food allergy and food intolerance are very different. Remember when you were a kid and got vaccines so that your immune system would protect you against all those diseases? A food allergy is also an immune response and your body thinks it is now “protecting” you against the food. The problem is that a food allergy is often a lifelong problem. As a result, the long-term treatment plan for food allergy includes the following:

  • Avoid the product (likely for life, since your body will always protect you from that food). Accidental exposure could result in death.
  • You will likely need an injectable epinephrine pen, school forms for strict avoidance and an anaphylaxis action plan.

Food intolerance is different. An intolerance might be lifelong (lactose intolerance or celiac disease) or it might be temporary. If it’s temporary, there is no good way to tell when to bring back the food. You just have to try and see what happens. For this reason, the general plan for intolerance is:

  • Avoid the food (for now). Accidental ingestion will likely trigger your symptoms but will not cause a risk of death.
  • Wait an amount of time. Possibly three months, six months or a year (discuss this with a healthcare professional).
  • At some point, consider bringing back the product. If you can tolerate it again, great. If not, then remove it again for another period of three to 12 months.
  • There is no need for an epinephrine injector or school forms.

Although it's not a treatment for a food allergy, the best thing to do is avoid the allergic reaction by avoiding eating the food that causes the allergic response. There is currently no cure for food allergies.

Louise Goldberg
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

At this time there is no medication or therapy that has been approved to treat food allergies with the exception of eliminating that food or ingredient from one's diet. It is important to work closely with a dietitian who is familiar with food allergies to find safe foods, prevent nutrient deficiencies and prevent accidental ingestion of 'hidden' ingredients/additives that may cause a reaction.

There are several therapies that are being studied now (herbal therapy, desensitization, etc), but nothing is conclusive at this time.

People with food allergies need to be vigilant about avoiding foods that they are allergic to. They should ask about ingredients when eating at restaurants or at someone else's home. People with severe allergies may need to keep an epinephrine pen and antihistamines on them at all times to treat emergency reactions. If a person develops symptoms of anaphylaxis such as difficulty breathing, drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness, they require immediate medical attention.

A few research centers throughout the country have children and adults enrolled in trials involving oral and sublingual immunotherapy. This therapy, in which patients with allergies are given small but increasing amounts of the food they are allergic to, shows promise. Right now, significant debate exists as to whether this therapy might lead to a permanent change in the patient’s immune system or just a temporary state of tolerance.

Dr. Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Practitioner

The mainstay of treatment for food allergy is prevention through avoidance of that food protein. There is no cure for food allergies, but you can use antihistamines and epinephrine to treat acute reactions.

Currently there is no cure for a food allergy. There are only treatments to lessen the symptoms caused by a food allergy reaction. The best approach is to avoid all contact with the food you are allergic to. Of course, you may be unintentionally exposed, and having medications on hand to use immediately can be helpful, if not lifesaving.

Serious allergic reactions to foods resulting in anaphylaxis require emergency treatment with a medication called epinephrine. For more mild food allergy symptoms such as itchy and watery eyes, a stuffy nose and sneezing, an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl is usually effective.

Consider wearing a medical alert bracelet and visiting with your family doctor to ensure you have the proper medications available and understand how to use them properly.

Dr. William B. Salt, MD
Gastroenterologist

Other than avoidance, there are no effective treatments for food allergies. If allergies are confirmed, you should carry an epinephrine kit at all times; exposure to hidden allergens in foods thought to be safe is fairly common. Even if the epinephrine eliminates the initial symptoms, immediate medical attention should be sought.

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Marisa Moore
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

The best way to "treat" food allergies is to avoid the food that causes the allergy. This often requires some detective work but labeling laws in the United States have made the process a little easier. All packaged foods must list the most common allergens found in the product.

  • Avoid obvious foods that you are allergic to.
  • Do research to find out if the food you're allergic to might also include other foods. For example, many people who are allergic to bananas also have adverse reactions to mango and avocado.
  • Read labels for packaged foods. Look for all forms of the allergen. If you’re allergic to milk, check for code words including but not limited to casein, whey, lacto albumin and butter.
  • Be sure to check restaurant menus and let your server know about any allergies during ordering and when the food is served.
  • If you’re invited to a dinner party, be sure to let the host know about your allergy in advance so that he or she can plan for your special needs. This makes it more comfortable for both of you.

At present the only treatment is avoidance. Knowing what you are allergic to is very important, and good education on how to avoid those things is necessary. Accidental exposures can be treated with injectable epinephrine and antihistamines.

Right now there is no treatment to resolve food allergy, although some may resolve with time. There are a number of treatments in clinical trials and studies, from oral desensitization to Chinese herbal supplements, so new treatment options are on the horizon.

Ms. Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Once diagnosed with food allergies, strict avoidance is the only method of preventing a food allergic reaction. An antihistamine (Benadryl) is often used to treat mild food allergy symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, skin itching/rash, hives. Epipen (injectable epinephrine) is the medication of choice for a severe allergic reaction/anaphylaxis.

First, it is important to make sure that an accurate diagnosis has been made. Recent expert panel guidelines on the diagnosis and treatment of food allergy in the United States underscore the importance of proper diagnosis. Make sure to work with your doctor, preferably a board certified allergist, to make sure that you know what foods need to be avoided and how to manage symptoms and allergic reactions.

I believe that people with food allergy should be able to do what everyone else does except for eating the food to which they are allergic. However, keeping safe by avoiding the food that you're allergic to is not simple and requires a lot of education. Briefly, areas of special education about food avoidance include reading ingredient labels on manufactured products, understanding how to get safe meals in a restaurant, understanding food avoidance at home including avoiding cross contact of foods with allergens, and, for children, special issues for schools and camps. 

The other major issue with living with food allergy is to learn how to recognize symptoms and treat them. The primary treatment for a severe allergic reaction is epinephrine which, for people with severe allergies, is carried at all times as a self injector. Talk to your doctor about when and how to use this life-saving device. For children, an adult must be knowledgeable about recognizing and treating symptoms. Consider obtaining medical identification jewelry as well. Sometimes living with a severe food allergy can take a nutritional, social and emotional toll on the individual and family. Be sure to talk to your doctor about this as well, to consider advice from dietitians, mental health professionals and other resources.

The current treatment is therefore avoiding the food and being ready to treat with medications in the event of a severe allergic reaction. However, the good news about food allergy is that many future therapies are under study.

Additional resources are available through the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, Food Allergy Initiative and the Consortium of Food Allergy Research.

Avoiding foods that cause your symptoms is the only "treatment" for food allergies. Unfortunately, that is often easier said than done. Foods like milk and wheat, for example, are ubiquitous, so life can be very difficult if you are allergic to them.

Even peanuts can be hard to avoid, because the world is full of nuts. Specifically, peanuts and peanut traces are found in cookies, cakes, cookies, candy bars, breakfast cereals, Asian cooking (peanut oil is popular), ice creams, breads, desserts, gravies and sauces, and in a variety of processed foods. People who have experienced or are at high risk to experience for life-threatening food allergies are advised to carry injectable epinephrine and possibly antihistamines. These items will reduce serious symptoms and buy a sufferer time to seek medical help.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.