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WIC 353 Food Allergies
Food allergies are adverse health effects arising from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food. (1)
Presence of condition diagnosed, documented, or reported by a physician or someone working under a physician’s orders, or as self reported by applicant/participant/caregiver. See Clarification for more information about self-reporting a diagnosis.
The actual prevalence of food allergies is difficult to establish due to variability in study designs and definitions of food allergies; however recent studies suggest a true increase in prevalence over the past 10 to 20 years (1). A meta-analysis conducted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) found the prevalence of food allergy among all age groups between 1-10% (2). Further research has found that food allergy affects more children than recently reported with the prevalence estimated to be 8 % (2). Food allergies are a significant health concern as they can cause serious illness and life-threatening reactions. Prompt identification and proper treatment of food allergies improves quality of life, nutritional well-being and social interaction.
Food allergy reactions occur when the body’s immune system responds to a harmless food as if it were a threat (3). The most common types of food allergies involve immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated responses. The immune system forms IgE against offending food(s) and causes abnormal reactions. IgE is a distinct class of antibodies that mediates an immediate allergic reaction. When food allergens enter the body, IgE antibodies bind to them and release chemicals that cause various symptoms. (1)
According to an expert panel sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, individuals with a family history of any allergic disease are susceptible to developing food allergies and are classified as “at risk” or “high risk.” Individuals who are “at risk” are those with a biological parent or sibling with existing, or history of, allergic rhinitis, asthma or atopic dermatitis. Individuals who are “high risk” are those with preexisting severe allergic disease and/or family history of food allergies. (1)
Food Allergies vs. Intolerances
Food intolerances are classified differently from food allergies based on the pathophysiological mechanism of the reactions. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances do not involve the immune system. Food intolerances are adverse reactions to food caused either by the properties of the food itself, such as a toxin, or the characteristics of the individual, such as a metabolic disorder (4). Food intolerances are often misdiagnosed as food allergies because the symptoms are often similar. Causes of food intolerances may include food poisoning, histamine toxicity, food additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), or sulfites (5). The most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance (see nutrition risk criterion #355, Lactose Intolerance).
Common Food Allergens
Although reactions can occur from the ingestion of any food, a small number of foods are responsible for the majority of food-induced allergic reactions (6). The foods that most often cause allergic reactions include:• cow’s milk (and foods made from cow’s milk) • eggs • peanuts • tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, brazil nuts) • fish • crustacean shellfish (e.g., shrimp, crayfish, lobster, and crab) • wheat • soy
For many individuals, food allergies appear within the first two years of life. Allergies to cow’s milk, eggs, wheat and soy generally resolve in early childhood. In contrast, allergy to peanuts and tree nuts typically persist to adulthood. Adults may have food allergies continuing from childhood or may develop sensitivity to food allergens encountered after childhood, which usually continue through life. (1)Symptoms
There are several types of immune responses to food including IgE-mediated, non-IgE-mediated or mixed. In an IgE-mediated response, the immune system produces allergen-specific IgE antibodies (sIgE) when a food allergen first enters the body. Upon re-exposure to the food allergen, the sIgE identifies it and quickly initiates the release of chemicals, such as histamine (3). These chemicals cause various symptoms based on the area of the body in which they were released. These reactions occur within minutes or up to 4 hours after ingestion and include symptoms such as urticaria (hives), angioedema, wheezing, cough, nausea, vomiting, hypotension and anaphylaxis (7).
Food-induced anaphylaxis is the most severe form of IgE-mediated food allergies. It often occurs rapidly, within seconds to a few hours after exposure, and is potentially fatal without proper treatment. Food-induced anaphylaxis often affects multiple organ systems and produces many symptoms, including respiratory compromise (e.g., dyspnea, wheeze and bronchospasm), swelling and reduced blood pressure (7). Prompt diagnosis and treatment is essential to prevent life-threatening reactions. Tree nuts, peanuts, milk, egg, fish and crustacean fish are the leading causes of food-induced anaphylaxis (1).
Food allergens may also induce allergic reactions which are non-IgE-mediated. Non-IgE-mediated reactions generally occur more than 4 hours after ingestion, primarily result in gastrointestinal symptoms and are more chronic in nature (7). Examples of non-IgE-mediated reactions to specific foods include celiac disease (see nutrition risk criterion #354, Celiac Disease), food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES), food protein-induced proctocolitis (FPIP), food protein-induced gastroenteropathy, food-induced contact dermatitis and food-induced pulmonary hemosiderosis (Heiner’s syndrome) (accessed May 2012) (8).
The diagnosis of food allergies by a health care provider (HCP) is often difficult and can be multifaceted (see Clarification for more information). Food allergies often coexist with severe asthma, atopic dermatitis (AD), eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) and exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Individuals with a diagnosis of any of these conditions should be considered for food allergy evaluation. (1)
Currently, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that restricting highly allergenic foods in the maternal diet during pregnancy or lactation prevents the development of food allergies in the offspring (9). Adequate nutrition intake during pregnancy and lactation is essential to achieve positive health outcomes. Unnecessary food avoidance can result in inadequate nutrition. There is also a lack of evidence that delaying the introduction of solids beyond 6 months of age, including highly allergenic foods, prevents the development of food allergies. If the introduction of developmentally appropriate solid food is delayed beyond 6 months of age, inadequate nutrient intake, growth deficits and feeding problems can occur. (1)
The protective role that breastfeeding has in the prevention of food allergies remains unclear. There is some evidence for infants at high risk of developing food allergies that exclusive breastfeeding for at least 4 months may decrease the likelihood of cow’s milk allergy in the first 2 years of life (9). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) continues to recommend that all infants, including those with a family history of food allergies, be exclusively breastfed until 6 months of age, unless contraindicated for medical reasons (1, 10). For infants who are partially breastfed or formula fed, partially hydrolyzed formulas may be considered as a strategy for preventing the development of food allergies in at-risk infants. According to the AAP, there is no convincing evidence for the use of soy formula as a strategy for preventing the development of food allergies in at-risk infants and therefore it is not recommended. (9)
Food allergies have been shown to produce anxiety and alter the quality of life of those with the condition. It is recommended that individuals with food allergies and their caregivers be educated on food allergen avoidance and emergency management that is age and culturally appropriate. Individuals with a history of severe food allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis, should work with their HCP to establish an emergency management plan. (1)
Food allergen avoidance is the safest method for managing food allergies. Individuals with food allergies must work closely with their HCP to determine the food(s) to be avoided. This includes the avoidance of any cross-reactive foods, i.e., similar foods within a food group (see Clarification for more information). Nutrition counseling and growth monitoring is recommended for all individuals with food allergies to ensure a nutritionally adequate diet. Individuals with food allergies should also be educated on reading food labels and ingredient lists. (1)
Infants who are partially breastfed or formula fed, with certain non-IgE mediated allergies, such as, FPIES and FPIP may require extensively hydrolyzed casein or amino acid-based formula. According to food allergy experts, children with FPIES can be re-challenged every 18-24 months and, infants/children with FPIP can be re-challenged at 9-12 months of age. The re-challenging of foods should be done with HCP oversight. (8)
Through client-centered counseling, WIC staff can assist families with food allergies in making changes that improve quality of life and promote nutritional well-being while avoiding offending foods. Based on the needs and interests of the participant, WIC staff can (as appropriate):
- Facilitate and encourage the participant’s ongoing follow-up with the HCP for optimal management of the condition.
- Promote exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age and continue through the first year (10).
- Provide hypoallergenic formula for participants with appropriate medical documentation, as needed.
- Tailor food packages to substitute or remove offending foods.
- Educate participants on maintaining adequate nutritional intake while avoiding offending foods.
- Monitor weight status and growth patterns of participants.
- Educate participants about reading food labels and identifying offending foods and ingredients. See resources below:
http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ UCM254727.pdf. Accessed May 2012.
http://www.webmd.com/allergies/foodtriggers. Accessed May 2012.
http://www.foodallergy.org/section/how-to-read-a-label. Accessed May 2012.
- Educate participants on planning meals and snacks for outside the home.
- Refer participants to their HCP for a re-challenge of offending foods, as appropriate.
- Establish/maintain communication with participant’s HCP.
1. Boyce, J. et al. Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of food allergy in the United States: Report of the NIAID-Sponsored Expert Panel. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2010; 126(6):S1-S58. http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(10)01566-6/fulltext. Accessed May 2012.
2. Gupta, R. et al. The prevalence, severity and distribution of childhood food allergy in the United States. Pediatrics. 2011; 128(1):e9-e17. Available at: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/128/1/e9.full.html. Accessed May 2012.
3. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease website: How do allergic reactions work? Available at: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/foodallergy/understanding/pages/whatisit.aspx. Accessed May 2012.
4. Cianferoni, A, Spergel, JM. Food allergy: review, classification and diagnosis. Allergology International. 2009; 58:457-466.
5. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Food allergy: An overview. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, 2010 (NIH Publication No. 11-5518). Available at: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/foodallergy/understanding/pages/whatisit.aspx. Accessed May 2012.
6. Sampson, HA. Food Allergy. Part 1: Immunopathogenesis and clinical disorders. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 1999; 103(5):717-728.
7. Davis, C. Food allergies: clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and management. Current Problems in Pediatric Adolescent Health Care. 2009; 39:236-254.
8. Metcalfe DD, Sampson HA, Simon RA, editors. Food allergy: adverse reactions to food and food additives. 4th ed. Malden (MA): Blackwell Publishing; 2008.
9. Greer, F. et al. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition. Effects of early nutritional interventions on the development of atopic disease in infants and children: the role of maternal dietary restriction, breastfeeding, timing of introduction of complementary foods, and hydrolyzed formulas. Pediatrics. 2008; 121(1), pages 183-191.
10. Gartner LM, Morton J, Lawrence RA, et al. American Academy of Pediatrics. Policy Statement: Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics.2005; 115 (2):496– 506.
11. Sicherer S.H., Sampson, HA. Food allergy. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2010; (125):S116-S125.
Self-reporting of a diagnosis by a medical professional should not be confused with self-diagnosis, where a person simply claims to have or to have had a medical condition without any reference to professional diagnosis. A self-reported medical diagnosis (“My doctor says that I have/my son or daughter has…”) should prompt the CPA to validate the presence of the condition by asking more pointed questions related to that diagnosis.
Food allergies are diagnosed by a HCP by evaluating a thorough medical history and conducting a physical exam to consider possible trigger foods to determine the underlying mechanism of the reaction, which guides testing. Along with a detailed history of the disorder, such as symptoms, timing, common triggers and associations, there are several types of tests that the HCP may use in diagnosing food allergies. These include the following:
- Food Elimination Diet
- Oral Food Challenges
- Skin Prick Test (SPT)
- Allergen-specific serum IgE (sIgE)
- Atopy Patch Test
Diagnosing food allergies is difficult because the detection of sIgE does not necessarily indicate a clinical allergy. Often, more than one type of test is required to confirm a diagnosis. The double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge is considered the gold standard in testing for food allergies. (11)
Children often outgrow allergies to cow’s milk, soy, egg, and wheat quickly; but are less likely to outgrow allergies to peanut, tree nuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish. If the child has had a recent allergic reaction, there is no reason to retest. Otherwise, annual testing may be considered to see if the allergy to cow’s milk, soy, egg, or wheat has been outgrown so the diet can be normalized. (1)
Cross-reactive food: When a person has allergies to one food, he/she tends to be allergic to similar foods within a food group. For example, all shellfish are closely related; if a person is allergic to one shellfish, there is a strong chance that person is also allergic to other shellfish. The same holds true for tree-nuts, such as almonds, cashews and walnuts. (1)