When Is a Food Allergy a Medical Emergency?

Food Allergy Action Month

May Is Food Allergy Action Month!

Food allergies are a serious medical condition affecting an estimated 15 million people in the United States. A food allergy sends someone to the ER every three minutes! Read on to learn more about food allergies and what to do in an emergency.

What Is a Food Allergy?

Food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. Even a tiny amount of the allergy-causing food can trigger signs and symptoms such as digestive problems, hives or swollen airways. Most food allergies first develop in children 6 years old or younger, but food allergies can appear in adults as well.

While any food can trigger a reaction, eight specific foods make up about 90% of all allergic reactions:

  1. Milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Peanuts
  4. Tree nuts (like walnuts and pecans)
  5. Soy
  6. Wheat
  7. Fish
  8. Shellfish

What Are the Symptoms of a Food Allergy?

An allergic reaction can happen within minutes of eating, or it may happen hours later. Food allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe. Just because an initial reaction causes few problems doesn’t mean that all reactions will be similar; a food that triggered only mild symptoms on one occasion may cause more severe symptoms at another time.

“Many people think they only have a food intolerance to certain foods,” says Dr. Brian Aldred, medical director of Five Star ER in Round Rock, TX. “If you experience mild abdominal pain, bloating, or nausea after eating, it is most likely a case of food intolerance. If you develop a rash, itching of the skin/tongue/throat, or any sensation of tongue or throat swelling, you likely are having a food allergy. Mild food allergies may become more severe, and even life-threatening, with a subsequent exposure to the food.”

Mild symptoms of a food allergy include:

Severe symptoms of a food allergy include:

Mild to moderate symptoms (e.g., itching, sneezing, hives or rashes) are often treated with antihistamines and oral or topical steroids. Severe food allergy reactions should be treated as an emergency and medical help should be sought immediately.

“Simple rashes can often be treated with topical benadryl or oral benadryl,” says Dr. Mike Zimmerman, medical director of Five Star ER in Pflugerville, TX.

When Is a Food Allergy a Medical Emergency?

Severe symptoms of a food allergy alone or in combination with mild symptoms may be signs of anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. During an anaphylactic reaction, the body releases chemical substances, including histamine, into the blood stream which causes blood vessels in multiple parts of the body to swell. Within minutes of an anaphylactic reaction, a person’s airways could become so restricted that they are unable to breathe.

“If you are having any swelling of the mouth, lips, tongue, throat, or any feeling like you can’t breathe, you need to go to the ER ASAP,” Zimmerman says.

Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical treatment, including a prompt injection of epinephrine and a trip to a hospital emergency room. If it isn’t treated properly, anaphylaxis can be fatal.

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About Five Star ER

Five Star ER is locally owned and operated by the physicians of Emergency Service Partners, L.P., a respected provider of emergency physician services to hospitals and health systems across Texas for nearly 30. Our experienced physicians bring their excellent tradition of emergency care to a first-class, patient-centered freestanding ER.

Our patient-centered care means you will come first. Our freestanding ER provides the capabilities of a hospital emergency department, without the hassles and long waits that can be part of a hospital ER. From the comfortable lounge area and private exam rooms, to our top-notch medical team and latest technology, patients can be door-to-doctor in less than 15 minutes. To find the location nearest you, click here.

This content was created to be purely educational in nature. This post is not meant to be used as a substitute for medical treatment or personal consultation regarding a medical condition. As always, if you or a loved one is suffering a life-threatening medical emergency or injury, call 911.


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