Food allergies: Rare but risky

Do you start itching whenever you eat peanuts? Does seafood cause your stomach to churn? Symptoms like these cause millions of Americans to suspect they have a food allergy.

But true food allergies affect a relatively small percentage of people: Experts estimate that only 2 percent of adults, and from 2 to 8 percent of children, are truly allergic to certain foods. Food allergy is different from food intolerance, and the term is sometimes used in a vague, all-encompassing way, muddying the waters for people who want to understand what a real food allergy is.

"Many people who have a complaint, an illness, or some discomfort attribute it to something they have eaten. Because in this country we eat almost all the time, people tend to draw false associations between food and illness," says Dean Metcalfe, M.D., head of the Mast Cell and Physiology Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

ALLERGY AND INTOLERANCE--DIFFERENT PROBLEMS

The difference between an allergy and an intolerance is how the body handles the offending food. In a true food allergy, the body's immune system recognizes a reaction-provoking substance, or allergen, in the food--usually a protein--as foreign and produces antibodies to halt the "invasion." As the battle rages, symptoms appear throughout the body. The most common sites are the mouth (swelling of the lips), digestive tract (stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea), skin (hives, rashes or eczema), and the airways (wheezing or breathing problems). People with allergies must avoid the offending foods altogether.

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