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Ask the Doc: Can I Develop Sudden Food Allergies?

Image of Allergy Test. Air Force Staff Sgt. Lucretia Cunningham, an allergy and immunization technician assigned to the 633rd Medical Operations Squadron, prepares a patient for an allergy skin test at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. (Photo: Air Force Airman 1st Class Kaylee Dubois)

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Dear Doc: I was at a picnic over the weekend where there were lots of different kinds of foods. Being adventurous, I tried a bit of everything. Before long, I started to have trouble breathing, developed a rash, and had to be taken to the emergency room. I was told I had an allergic reaction and had to be treated with Benadryl. I have never had an allergic reaction before and am not allergic to anything I know of. How is this possible? Was it something I ate? How can I tell what it was, and how can I prevent it from happening again?

- Sgt. Willi B. Okae

Dear Sgt. Okae: That sure does sound scary. I’m sure not knowing what caused your allergic reaction could cause some worries and hesitation in the future. I’ve reached out to the perfect person to talk to about this, Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Diana Lindsey, an allergy specialist at the Point Loma Allergy/Immunology Clinic, Naval Medical Center San Diego, in California.

Here’s what Dr. Lindsey had to say:

While considered rare, it is possible to have an allergic reaction to food for the first time as an adult. Your evaluation will require some detective work. The best thing for you to do at this point is make a list of all the foods you remember ingesting at the picnic and bring this to your next doctor’s visit. You should be referred to an allergist and we will use your list, along with many additional questions, to help guide testing and treatment recommendations. Allergies occur when your immune system overacts to something that should be harmless, in this case food. Family and personal history of allergies seem to play a role in the development of a food allergy. Prevention of food allergies is a hot research topic. Early exposure to “allergenic” foods may help prevent development of an allergy. Actual food allergies are very consistent. Each time you eat your culprit food, you will experience symptoms such as hives, swelling, trouble breathing, vomiting, and others. Some symptoms of food allergy can overlap with food intolerances, so it’s important to be properly diagnosed. One approach is to eat one new food every few days. This way, if you develop any symptoms, it is easier to pinpoint which food may be the culprit. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, these eight types of foods account for about 90% of all reactions:

  • Eggs
  • Milk/dairy
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Sesame is increasing as a common food allergen.

If you believe you are having an allergic reaction to a food, you need to call for help right away.

Food allergies are serious and can cause a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. When it comes to anaphylaxis, timing in critical; earlier care is always better.

Once you have a diagnosis of a food allergy you will be advised to avoid your culprit food. You will also be trained and educated on how and when to use an epinephrine auto-injector. This device will be carried by you, and used if you accidentally ingest the foods you’re allergic to.

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Sgt. Okae, I hope this answers your questions. Make sure you make an appointment with an allergist soon to diagnose what caused your allergic reaction and what steps you can take to avoid another.

For more information, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on food allergies. Good luck, my friend, and as always…take care out there!

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Last Updated: August 03, 2022
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