Food allergies: Rare but risky


Diagram of commom sites for allergic reactions

Cow's milk, eggs, wheat, and soy are the most common sources of food allergies in children. Allergists believe that infant allergies are the result of immunologic immaturity and, to some extent, intestinal immaturity. Children sometimes outgrow the allergies they had as infants, but an early peanut allergy may be lifelong. Adults are usually most affected by tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and peanuts.

Food intolerance is a much more common problem than allergy. Here, the problem is not with the body's immune system, but, rather, with its metabolism. The body cannot adequately digest a portion of the offending food, usually because of some chemical deficiency. For example, persons who have difficulty digesting milk (lactose intolerance) often are deficient in the intestinal enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest milk sugar (lactose). The deficiency can cause cramps and diarrhea if milk is consumed. Estimates are that about 80 percent of African-Americans have lactose intolerance, as do many people of Mediterranean or Hispanic origin. It is quite different from the true allergic reaction some have to the proteins in milk. Unlike allergies, intolerances generally intensify with age.


For people with true food allergies, the simple pleasure of eating can turn into an uncomfortable--and sometimes even dangerous--situation. For some, food allergies cause only hives or an upset stomach; for others, one bite of the wrong food can lead to serious illness or even death.

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