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  • Pediatric Allergy & Immunology

    Pediatric Patients Only

    The Pediatric Allergy Group at MassGeneral Hospital for Children provides a comprehensive program for diagnosing and treating allergies and asthma.

    To schedule an appointment, please call: 617-726-8707

  • Food Allergy Center

    Pediatric Patients Only

    A multidisciplinary team at MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s Food Allergy Center provides evaluation and treatment for children with known and suspected food allergies and related conditions.

    To make an appointment, please call: 617-643-6834

    Support the Food Allergy Center
  • Pediatric Anesthesia

    The Pediatric Anesthesia team at MassGeneral Hospital for Children specializes in caring for children before, during and after surgery and other procedures.

    For more information, please call: 617-724-2250

About This Condition

Food Allergies

What is food allergy?

A food allergy is an abnormal response of the body's immune system to certain foods. This is not the same as food intolerance, although some of the symptoms may be very similar.

What causes food allergies?

Your body’s immune system fights off infections and other dangers to keep you healthy. When your immune system senses that a food or something in a food is a “danger” to your health, you have a food allergy reaction. Your immune system sends out immunoglobulin E or IgE antibodies. These react to the food or substance in the food. This can cause allergy symptoms such as hives, asthma, itching in the mouth, trouble breathing, stomach pains, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Which foods most often cause food allergies?

About 9 in 10 food allergies are caused by these foods:

  • Milk

  • Eggs

  • Wheat

  • Soy

  • Tree nuts

  • Fish

  • Shellfish

  • Peanuts

Some facts about food allergies:

  • Eggs, milk, and peanuts are the most common causes of food allergies in children.

  • Peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish commonly cause the most severe reactions.

  • Nearly 1 in 20 children under the age of 5 years have food allergies.

  • From 1997 to 2007, food allergies increased by 18% among children under age 18 years.

  • Most children "outgrow" their allergies. But allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish may be lifelong.

  • According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, it doesn't take much food to cause a severe allergic reaction—1/44,000 of a peanut can cause a severe reaction in a highly allergic person.

What are the symptoms of food allergies?

Allergic symptoms may begin within minutes to an hour after eating the food. The following are the most common symptoms of a food allergy. But symptoms may occur a bit differently for each person. Symptoms may include:

  • Swelling and itching of lips and mouth

  • Tightness in the throat or hoarse voice

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea and cramps

  • Itchy, raised bumps (hives)

  • Swelling of the skin

  • Itching

The symptoms of a food allergy may look like other health conditions or problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

What are severe symptoms of food allergy?

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction. It is life-threatening. Symptoms can include those above as well as the following:

  • Trouble breathing or wheezing

  • Feeling as if the throat is closing or that the lips and tongue are swelling 

  • Flushing of the skin

  • Itching of palms and soles of feet

  • Feeling faint

  • Nausea

  • Fast pulse

  • Low blood pressure

  • Loss of consciousness

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. Call 911 to get help right away. Severe allergic reactions are treated with epinephrine. If you know you have severe allergies, you should carry an emergency kit with self-injecting epinephrine or Epi-pens.

Treatment for food allergies in adults

The goal of treatment is to stay away from the food that causes the allergic symptoms. There is no medicine to prevent food allergies, although research is ongoing.

You need to be prepared in case you eat something with the food that causes your allergic reaction. You may need an emergency kit to stop severe reactions. Talk with your healthcare provider about what you should do.

Medicines are available for some symptoms caused by food allergy after the food has been eaten. Discuss available medicines with your healthcare provider.

Treatment of food allergies in children

As in adults, it is very important that your child stays away from foods that cause allergies. If you are breastfeeding your child, it is important that you not eat foods to which your child is allergic.

You may need to give vitamins to your child if he or she is unable to eat certain foods. Discuss this with your child's healthcare provider.

Your child's healthcare provider may also prescribe an emergency kit.  Be sure to ask your child's healthcare provider about an emergency kit if you don't already have one.

Some children under the supervision of their healthcare provider may be given certain foods after a period of 3 to 6 months. This finds out if the child has outgrown the allergy.  

Clinical Trials

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

News

  • Introducing Your Infant to Allergens: Understanding the Latest Recommendations - 6/7/2017, Mass General

    Wayne Shreffler, MD, PhD, the chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology and director of the Food Allergy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, provides insight into new National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease recommendations and their potential implications for patient care.

  • Tips for enjoying the holidays with food allergies - 12/13/2013, Mass General

    MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s Food Allergy Center experts share their surefire tips for ensuring families with food allergies experience a happy and healthy holiday season.

  • Tips for Travel - 12/7/2012, Mass General

    Traveling with children who have food allergies can be challenging, but with a little preparation, you don’t need to stay home.

  • A Nurse Who Wears Many Hats - 12/7/2012, Mass General

    As both a pediatric allergy and pulmonary nurse and mother of children with food allergies, Lisa provides an insight into the emerging food allergy developments.

  • Breastfeeding and the Development of Allergic Disease - 8/23/2012, Research

    In addition to practicing pediatric allergy/immunology at MGHfC and the Newton-Wellesley Hospital outpatient Pediatric Specialty Ambulatory Care Center, Dr. Iyengar conducts translational research on breast milk factors implicated in the development of allergic disease. As an Associate Investigator of the Harvard Clinical Nutrition Research Center (HCNRC) at MGH, she studies the role of breast milk in modulating gut mucosal responses in allergic disease.

  • Summer Camp and your Food Allergic Child - 5/24/2012, Mass General

    After-school activities can be difficult with a food allergic child. Rose Ann Miller talks about her own experience sending her food allergic child to summer camp. Learn about how she worked together with the Food Allergy Center to prepare herself, the camp and her child for this new life hurdle.

  • Food Allergy Anxieties - 5/24/2012, Mass General

    Nancy S. Rotter, PhD, a pediatric psychologist in the Food Allergy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, treats children who are impacted by medical illness and specializes in understanding the challenges of preparing allergic children for transitions at different developmental stages. Sarah Wolfgang talks about her own experience managing her day to day activities with her two allergic children.

  • A dream come true: working at Mass General's Food Allergy Center - 5/24/2012, Mass General

    Qian Yuan, MD, PhD, is a gastroenterologist and clinical director at the Food Allergy Center (FAC) at Massachusetts General Hospital. Before coming to Mass General, Dr. Yuan worked with renowned immunologist and allergist K. Frank Austen, MD, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he sparked an interest in Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE or EoE). Read about the exciting research projects and advancements in EoE at the center.

  • What research is currently underway at the Food Allergy Center? - 5/24/2012, Research

    Research at the Food Allergy Center including an oral immunotherapy study of peanut-allergic children, a study of older adolescents and adults with milk and peanut allergies, and plans for a new, multi-food study with Stanford University, and more.

  • Oral Food Challenges - 5/24/2012, Mass General

    The Food Allergy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital has conducted more than 200 food challenges with a pass rate of about 70 percent. A food challenge is the most definitive procedure for testing whether someone can tolerate a specific food. Parents from the Food Allergy Center talk about their own experiences with food challenges.

  • Peanut Oral Immunotherapy Study at the Food Allergy Center - 5/24/2012, Mass General

    The Food Allergy Center is currently enrolling peanut allergic children ages 7–21 years in an oral immunotherapy (OIT) study, which involves administering small doses of peanut powder, increased over time. Read about Deb Edmunds’ insiders experience with her daughter, Ashley Edmunds, who is currently enrolled.