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Vital Signs

Spring 2006

Diet Changes and Monitoring Help Control Food Allergies

The onset of a food allergy can be sudden, with symptoms ranging from an upset stomach or rash to painful gastrointestinal upset, labored breathing and, in some cases, anaphylactic shock or death. "While any food can be the source of an allergic reaction, 90 percent of all food allergies are caused by peanuts, eggs, milk, shellfish, wheat, tree nuts, soy and fish," notes Maria Garcia-Lloret, M.D., codirector of UCLA's Food Allergy Clinic.

A food allergy develops when the body's immune system reacts to an antigen, or foreign substance, in a particular food. The body produces a protein that interacts with the antigen to release histamine, which causes adverse reactions in the digestive or respiratory systems, or on the skin, explains co-director Marc Riedl, M.D. In most cases, an allergist can diagnose food allergies using simple skin or blood tests. The main treatment for a food allergy is strict avoidance of the allergycausing food to prevent an allergic reaction. For people with severe allergies, a doctor may recommend carrying epinephrine (a small dose of adrenaline) or antihistamines at all times in case of an accidental exposure to a food allergen.

At the UCLA Food Allergy Clinic, physicians, along with a nurse and nutritionist, provide testing and long-term monitoring to help children and adults understand the condition and to help implement lifelong dietary changes. Patients learn to ask questions when eating out, to read food labels carefully, and to learn "code" words for certain ingredients, which may contain harmful derivatives of the food. Retesting may be advised, since some patients may be avoiding certain foods unneccessarily; others, especially children, may have outgrown their allergies.

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