Treating Food Allergies

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2022 | Last updated: September 2022

A food allergy is when exposure to a protein in a food triggers a harmful response. This causes an overreaction in the immune system. The proteins that cause this response, known as an allergic reaction, are called allergens.1,2

More than 160 foods are known to cause an allergic reaction in people sensitive to that food. Some people are allergic to multiple foods. The most common food allergens include:1-3

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Tree nuts (Almonds, pistachios, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans)
  • Wheat
  • Sesame

Food allergies affect around 32 million people in the United States. Food allergies are often diagnosed in children, though they can develop later in both older children and adults.1,2

Food allergy reactions

Food allergies are a serious medical condition and can create a range of reactions. Most reactions occur when someone eats the food. Though rare, symptoms may also develop when someone touches or breathes in the proteins of the food.1

Most food allergies cause mild reactions, such as hives or an itchy mouth. Some food allergies cause more severe reactions like tightening of the throat and difficulty breathing. These life-threatening reactions, called anaphylaxis, can result in death.1-3

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The severity of the reaction usually cannot be predicted. It can vary from person to person and from reaction to reaction even in the same person.

Treating food allergies

There is no cure for a food allergy. The first line of defense against a food allergy is to avoid any food or ingredient that triggers a reaction. Food allergies are managed by identifying and avoiding problem foods. People with food allergies also need to learn to recognize symptoms of an allergic reaction and know how to treat those reactions quickly.2,4,5

If a person develops the most severe reaction, anaphylaxis, they must be treated immediately with epinephrine. This medicine is delivered through an auto-injector pen, commonly known as an EpiPen®.2,5

Treating mild reactions

Mild symptoms of an allergic reaction to food might include an itchy mouth, hives, or mild nausea. Over-the-counter drugs can be used to reduce itchiness, redness, or swelling. This may help prevent more serious problems. Antihistamines will not help with a severe allergic reaction.2,5

Treating serious reactions

In some cases, mild reactions get worse. Anaphylaxis requires quick treatment with an injection of epinephrine. Epinephrine comes in several brand-name (EpiPen®, Adrenaclick®, Auvi-Q®, Symjepi®) and generic forms.2,5

Use epinephrine if you have:2,5

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Repeated coughing
  • Throat or chest tightness
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Weak, rapid pulse

If you do use epinephrine, call 9-1-1. Tell them that epinephrine has been used. Most people also need to visit an emergency room for follow-up treatment and to monitor for serious, delayed reactions (biphasic reaction). In some cases, more than 1 dose of epinephrine is needed to treat a severe reaction.2,5

Developing a treatment plan

Because food allergies are potentially life-threatening, it is important to take them seriously.

If you or someone in your family has been diagnosed with a food allergy, developing a treatment plan will likely mean changing your lifestyle and the way you and those around you eat and live. It affects the way you shop, cook and clean, where you go, and where you or your family member can safely eat and travel.4

Developing a treatment plan will help you stay safe. It will also ensure that those around you are prepared for any allergic reactions you may have. Your treatment plan will include instructions on preventing, recognizing, and managing food allergy reactions. It should be shared with those close to you or your child.4,5

Some parts of the treatment plan may include:4,5

  • Learning to recognize early symptoms of an allergic reaction.
  • Knowing the right treatment measures depending on the severity of the reaction.
  • Always carrying the appropriate medicine.
  • Taking medicine at the first sign of a reaction.
  • Giving epinephrine, if necessary. This means training others on how to use an epinephrine auto-injector.
  • Learning to read food labels.
  • Carrying snacks that are safe for you to eat.
  • Wearing emergency medical identification.
  • Involving others. Caregivers, schools, teachers, coaches, family, and friends should all understand food allergies and how to treat them. Let them know what to do in case of an emergency.

Food allergies are serious. Even small amounts of food can cause a severe reaction. Do not take risks. If you are unsure how the food was prepared, do not eat it. In an emergency situation where epinephrine is given, always call 9-1-1.