Food allergies, along with seasonal allergies, are a common problem for many children and adults. In fact, an estimated 50 million people in the U.S. have some kind of allergy. Not every allergy lasts a lifetime, however.
About 80% of children will outgrow egg, milk and wheat allergies by the time they’re 16 years old. Peanuts, tree nuts and seafood allergies are more likely to be lifelong, but about 20% to 25% of children with peanut allergies outgrow them, most often by age 8. Although an estimated 80% of patients continue to have a sesame seed allergy, those who outgrow it typically do so by age 6.
Food and seasonal allergies aren’t the only allergies that don’t stick around forever. It may sound surprising, but most people who report having a penicillin allergy are either not actually allergic or will outgrow it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies suggest that while about 10% of Americans report a penicillin allergy, roughly 90% of those individuals are actually not allergic to the drug. Of those who are allergic, about 80% outgrow their penicillin allergy after 10 years of avoiding it. “Penicillin allergy is more likely to be outgrown than some food allergens such as peanuts, tree nuts and seafood,” Dr. Zachary Rubin, a pediatrician specializing in allergy treatment and immunology at Oak Brook Allergists in Illinois, tells Yahoo Life.
Why do some people's allergies go away?
Dr. Priya Bansal, an allergist and immunologist with the Asthma and Allergy Wellness Center in St. Charles, Ill., points out that “new allergies can also develop as we age.” But in some cases, kids and adults naturally outgrow their allergies, becoming more tolerant of their allergy triggers over time.
In addition, Bansal tells Yahoo Life, “allergies can decrease depending on changes, such as moving” to where there are fewer seasonal allergy triggers, for example, or through “therapies given for certain food and environmental allergies.”
Immunotherapy involves a series of injections — spread out over three to five years — that expose you to your allergy trigger, gradually increasing the dosage over time, according to the Mayo Clinic. Eventually, your body can build up a tolerance to the allergy trigger until you become desensitized to it. Immunotherapy works best for seasonal allergies, such as hay fever; indoor allergies such as pet dander, dust mites and mold; and insect stings, including bees, wasps, hornets or yellow jackets, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Peanut allergy immunotherapy is also now an option. According to the Asthma and Allergy Network, slowly building up peanut exposure — while safely under a doctor’s care or in a medical setting — can desensitize the patient to high doses of peanut protein. While it’s not a cure, the treatment can help reduce the frequency and severity of allergic reactions to peanuts.
How do you know if you (still) have an allergy?
The safest way to find out if you’ve outgrown an allergy — or learn whether you have one in the first place — is to see an allergy specialist for testing.
“The gold standard for determining whether someone is allergic to a food or penicillin is to consume it in a medically controlled environment,” says Rubin. “This is known as an oral food challenge or direct oral challenge. However, this can be a time-consuming, resource-intensive process that may carry a high risk. Therefore, we approximate the level of risk of reacting to food or penicillin through allergy testing.” Experts emphasize that people should not attempt to do an oral challenge on their own without an evaluation because it can be life-threatening.
Both food and penicillin allergies need to be discussed with an allergy specialist, who will take a detailed history, including what happens when you’re exposed to certain allergens. Allergy skin testing may also be used to determine whether a potential allergic reaction may occur when exposed to certain allergens. For foods, a skin prick/scratch test or intradermal skin test may be used. Further testing may be done through a blood test that measures the specific allergy antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). According to the Cleveland Clinic, these antibodies trigger the release of chemicals that cause an allergic reaction. The blood test helps determine the risk of having an allergic reaction.
How to protect yourself from allergy triggers
Certain types of allergies, such as those to food, insect stings and penicillin, can “lead to a potentially life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis,” says Rubin. So it’s crucial to know what your triggers are and the signs of an allergic reaction, which can include a skin rash, itching, hives, shortness of breath, wheezing, swelling of the lips, tongue or throat, nausea and vomiting.
In terms of food allergies, Rubin says it’s important to read food labels carefully to make sure the product does not contain that allergen and to let restaurants know about any food allergies. If you are allergic to penicillin, then it should be listed on your medical record, and your pharmacy should be aware of this as well.
For patients who are at risk for anaphylaxis, allergists can prescribe epinephrine auto-injectors, which help decrease the body’s allergic reaction. Experts recommend always having the medication with you, especially when in higher-risk situations such as being outside at a sporting event if you have an insect allergy or at a restaurant or friend's house if you have a food allergy.
Bansal also advises patients to “make sure you practice using the epinephrine trainer regularly so that you can use it during an emergency. Keep the epinephrine at room temperature and remember that it can go through clothes. Be sure to hold it for three seconds to give time for the medication to completely come out.”
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