Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Food Allergy Institute

What is a Food Allergy?

“I've been doing an egg allergy research study at the Jaffe Institute for almost two years. At first I was kind of nervous, but now it's second nature to me. And the nurses are so nice. I was going to Mount Sinai every two weeks, but now I am able to come in only every four months. Hopefully by the time this is all done, I will be able to have eggs!”
-Teenage participant, egg study

Q: What is a Food Allergy?

A: Food allergies are in the news more often these days. But not everyone knows quite what they are, or how they differ from food poisoning. One of the major roles of the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Food Allergy Institute is helping the public understand this important issue.

A food allergy is not the same as food poisoning or intolerance, although the symptoms for all three may be similar. You can become ill from food poisoning, typically caused by spoiled food. Or you can experience food intolerance. People with lactose intolerance, for example, cannot digest the milk sugar called lactose and may experience symptoms such as diarrhea and upset stomach after eating dairy products. Food poisoning or intolerance can make you feel very ill, but unlike severe food allergies, these conditions are usually not life-threatening.

You get an allergic reaction to food when your immune system—the part of the body that usually fights infection—attacks harmless proteins in your food. This response causes your body to release histamines and other substances, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, nasal symptoms, eczema, hives, swelling of the lips and tongue, coughing or wheezing, or even a drop in blood pressure or loss of consciousness. A life-threatening allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. A food allergy can be mild or severe, but it is always an immune system response.

The Jaffe Food Allergy Institute is committed to helping those with food allergies live safer and healthier lives through comprehensive care, education, and innovative research to find cures. To this end, we are conducting studies about various topics, including diagnosis, education, prevalence, quality of life, and symptom management issues, as well as many basic science studies. Learn more about current studies

A: Although you can be allergic to virtually any food, most allergies stem from a small number of sources. In children, the most common problem foods are egg, milk, peanut, soy, wheat, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, and pistachios), fish and shellfish. Adults are most likely to run into problems with peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. Lately, we have seen an increase in allergies to seeds like sesame, poppy, and mustard, and to various fresh or raw fruits and vegetables, though reactions to the latter two are usually mild.

A: You are probably familiar with sudden severe food allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis. However, food allergies can also cause chronic illnesses such as digestive problems and skin rashes, known as atopic dermatitis or eczema.

A: Also called eczema, atopic dermatitis is a chronic skin disease estimated to occur in 15 percent of children. About one in three children with moderate to severe atopic dermatitis has some food allergy. In infants and young children, atopic dermatitis is often the first sign that a child is prone to allergies and may develop food allergies, asthma, or nasal and eye reactions to airborne substances such as pollens and animal dander.

People with eczema have dry skin and an itchy, red rash. It’s very difficult not to scratch, and the scratching itself contributes to eczema flare-ups and can lead to bacterial or viral skin infections, which then cause even more itching, redness, and inflammation. Although eczema can be uncomfortable, it is not generally dangerous if you get appropriate treatment to clear up the skin lesions. Unfortunately, there’s no treatment that cures eczema permanently. Even if you’ve had all of your food allergies diagnosed and avoid each one, your eczema will come and go. Many non-food triggers can cause eczema flares, including stress, fever or viral illness, sweating, weather changes, and irritating clothing. The good news is that eczema usually improves with age.

A. Our allergists take a medical history and perform a physical examination to determine whether your problem is related to foods or other allergic triggers. You may need further testing, such as an allergy skin prick test or blood test measuring IgE antibodies to specific allergens. Another possibility is an oral food challenge, where you eat a little bit of the food that’s a concern, under medical supervision, to determine if you can tolerate it.

A. Once you or your child has been diagnosed with a food allergy, we explain how to avoid the problematic foods and how to recognize and treat a reaction. Our researchers are trying to develop better treatments and discover cures for food allergies.

A. Some food allergies, such as egg, milk, wheat, and soy, often resolve in childhood. But others, including peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish allergies, usually persist, though people have been known to outgrow them. About 20 percent of young children eventually grow out of their peanut allergies, while about 10 percent outgrow allergies to tree nuts.

A. We recommend breastfeeding for infants. There is no evidence to suggest that delaying introduction of allergens such as egg, milk, or peanut in otherwise healthy infants who are developmentally ready is problematic.   A study showed that early introduction of peanuts to infants who show signs of allergies but are not already allergic, in forms that are not choking hazards, have reduced the risk of peanut allergy.  Recommendations about infant diet change often, so ask your allergist for the latest advice.

A. Food allergies affect each individual and family differently. You should always take the possibility of anaphylaxis seriously, though it is both preventable and treatable. We provide the education and tools you need to make informed decisions and manage your child’s food allergies. In general, try to keep your life and activities as normal as possible. It should not be necessary to avoid social events, travel, or school.

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