12 March 2019

What should you do if you suspect you might have a food allergy?

While food allergies are common, they may be hard to diagnose. Think you might have a food allergy?

Food allergies can be hard to diagnose – and many people suspect a food allergy when it's actually something else.

Some food allergies are easy to diagnose – like when someone eats peanuts and immediately experiences a rash and swelling. Other food allergies are a bit harder to recognise, and may start later in life.

There is no perfect test to confirm a food allergy and many symptoms may actually indicate a completely different underlying digestive issue.

If you suspect you might have a food allergy it’s important to take the following steps:

1. See your doctor

A physical check-up by a medical professional is an important first step. Your doctor must know your symptoms to be able to help you rule out any other causes. If underlying medical causes are ruled out, your doctor will the use blood tests or a skin prick test to measure your immune response to certain foods.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, these tests can be reliable to rule out or determine a food allergy. Tests can often be confirmed by doing a challenge test, where you have to consume small portions of the food in increasing amounts over a certain time to see if there is an allergic reaction. It’s important that this is performed under the supervision of an allergist.

2. Try the elimination diet

If you know that your symptoms are not caused by any other digestive issues, your doctor might suggest that you try the elimination diet – where you eliminate the suspect food(s) from your diet and gradually reintroduce them.

Although elimination helps to link your symptoms to certain foods, it’s not the perfect way to diagnose a food allergy. You might just have a food intolerance, not an actual allergy.

3. Keep a food diary

Keep a meticulous food diary, making careful notes about what you eat and the resulting symptoms. This can point your doctor in the right direction and help you answer vital questions during your examination. 

4. Visit a registered dietitian

If you have established that key food groups in your diet are causing your symptoms, it’s a good idea to ask a nutritional expert about alternative ways to obtain essential nutrients.

5. Don’t self-diagnose – ever

If digestive symptoms such as stomach cramps are interfering with your daily life and you suspect a food allergy, get the opinion and the diagnosis of a medical professional. There might be an underlying medical condition that you are unaware of.

You should also know the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy. An intolerance can cause unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, stomach ache or other digestive issues, while a food allergy can be life-threatening in the case of anaphylaxis.

Image credits: iStock


Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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