Conditions & Treatments

Food Allergies

A food allergy is an abnormal response of the body to a certain food.

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?

A person must be exposed to the food at least once before the allergic symptoms occur. At that time, the immune system releases IgE antibodies that react to the food. Histamines are released, which 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 90% of all food allergies are caused by 8 foods, that include:

  • 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 5% of children under the age of 5 years have food allergies.

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

  • Most children "outgrow" their allergies, however, 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. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Swelling, itching of lips and mouth

  • Tightness in the throat or hoarse voice

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea and cramps

  • Hives, or itchy, raised bums

  • Swelling of the skin

  • Itching

The symptoms of a food allergy may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor 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

  • Flushing of the skin

  • Itching of palms, soles of feet

  • Feeling faint

  • Nausea

  • Fast pulse

  • Low blood pressure

  • Loss of consciousness

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. Call 911 for immediate medical assistance. Severe allergic reactions are treated with epinephrine. Those with known severe allergies should carry emergency kits with self-injecting epinephrine or Epi-pens.

Treatment for food allergies in adults

The goal of treatment is to avoid the food that causes the allergic symptoms. There is no medication to prevent food allergies, although research is ongoing.

You need to be prepared should you eat something with the food that causes your allergic reaction. You may need an emergency kit to stop severe reactions. Make sure you talk with your health care provider about what you should do.

There are medications available for some symptoms caused by food allergy after the food has been eaten. Discuss available medications with your doctor.

Treatment of food allergies in children

As in adults, it is very important to avoid these foods that cause allergies. If you are breastfeeding your child, it is important that you avoid 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 doctor.

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

Some children under the supervision of their doctor, may be given certain foods after a period of 3 to 6 months. This determines whether or not the child has outgrown the allergy.  


Treatment Programs

Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:

Digestive Healthcare Center

  • Weight Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center is a fully integrated center within the Digestive Healthcare Center that supports the spectrum of needs for people of all ages seeking help with obesity and weight loss.

  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

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

  • Food Allergy Program
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Food Allergy Program integrates patient-centered research and evidence-based, multidisciplinary care for adults and children with known or suspected allergies to foods including peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, wheat and soy.
  • Asthma Program
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Asthma Program diagnoses and manages asthma in adults and children, and provides ongoing care to help patients effectively control their condition and enjoy a better quality of life.

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.

Food Allergy Center patient testimonials

Read about three patients who have benefited from services at the Food Allergy Center.

The Food Allergy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and MassGeneral Hospital for Children

With the hope of making a long-term impact in the field, The Food Allergy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) has been established to diagnose and treat known and suspected cases of food allergies.

Summer Camp and your Food Allergic Child

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

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

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?

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

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

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.

Breastfeeding and the Development of Allergic Disease

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.

Thirteen tips to Navigate the Holidays Joyfully and Safely

Shift the focus from holiday foods and plan memorable holiday activities for your children to enjoy this season that are safe and free from allergens.

Tips for Travel

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

Food Allergy Center Research Provides Hope for Future Treatment of Food Allergies

The Food Allergy Center strives to answer why some people react to certain foods. Research provides hope for future treatment of patients with food allergies.

A Nurse Who Wears Many Hats

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.

Tips for enjoying the holidays with food allergies

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.

Living a Full and Happy Life with Food Allergies

Come join us for the third meeting in our series "Living a Full and Happy Life with Food Allergies" on April 10th. Meeting at Mass General, Yawkey, 4th Floor, RM 820 from 6:30-8:00 pm. (To find the room: Face the windows after you exit the elevators, turn left and walk to the end of the hallway. The entrance is on the left.) Children 8 and older are welcome. This meeting intends to address their concerns and give them a chance to share in an age appropriate manner. Upcoming events on May 16th and June 25th.

Frontiers in Pediatrics Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition 2013

This course is designed to meet one or more of the following Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education competencies: Patient care; Medical knowledge; Practice-based learning and improvement; Interpersonal and communication skills; Professionalism; Systems-based practice

Our commitment to quality and safety

Mass General ensures that our patients receive the highest quality and safest care possible. Learn about our performance, our improvement goals and how we compare to other institutions.