What to Do if You Suspect a Food Allergy

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on March 09, 2024
3 min read

Many people think they have food allergies. But according to experts, only 5% of children and 4% of teens and adults really have an allergic reaction to certain things they eat.

If you think you have this problem, it’s important to find out. These allergies can be dangerous. Here are tips that can help you find out if you’re allergic.

It's better to see an allergist than to try to diagnose a food allergy yourself. Why?

You’ll miss out. If you think you're allergic to a certain food, you’ll take it off the menu. But if you skip something you don’t have to -- like nuts -- you’ll deprive yourself of important nutrients.

You could be wrong. The doctor can figure out if you have a food intolerance -- meaning you can’t digest certain things -- or if you’re really allergic. That difference is important. Intolerances can be uncomfortable and hard to live with. But allergies can be life-threatening. Your doctor can offer advice on how to feel better. It may take more than one test to get a diagnosis.

You could have a worse reaction next time. Mild itching or tingling in your mouth could evolve into more serious problems. Your doctor can prescribe medications to treat symptoms. This may include an epinephrine injector, which can stop a life-threatening reaction. Always carry two shots with you if your doctor prescribes them. Don’t wait to use the device, even if your symptoms don’t seem to be allergy-related. Using it as a precaution won’t hurt you.

Your doctor will ask you questions like:

  • What foods did you eat before you had symptoms?
  • What symptoms did you have?
  • How soon did they come on and in what order?
  • How long did they last?
  • Have you had a reaction like this before?
  • Does anyone in your family have allergies?

The doctor may also do a skin test to see if your body reacts to a tiny amount of the suspected allergen or allergy trigger.

This simple task can help you help your doctor figure out what’s going on. For 1 or 2 weeks, write down in a notebook:

  • Everything you eat
  • Any symptoms you have
  • How long the symptoms happen after you eat certain foods

Let's say you had a reaction after eating prawns or shrimp with peanut sauce. You think the shellfish or peanuts caused it, but you don't know which. An "exclusion" or "elimination diet" can help pinpoint the problem food.

It’s important to do this under doctor supervision, because a food allergy can be dangerous and even fatal.

With help from your doctor or a dietitian:

  • Don't eat the foods you think you’re allergic to for 2 to 4 weeks. If you don't have any more symptoms, you probably are allergic to one of those foods.
  • Gradually add a single food back into your diet. If your symptoms come back, you’ve found the culprit. If they don't, the item is OK for you to eat, and you can try another single food.

To eliminate a food from your diet:

  • Read labels to make sure it isn't in packaged foods you buy or eat.
  • Know restaurant items that are likely to contain your problem food. If the kitchen can't prepare the dish without it, don't order it.
  • Make sure that utensils, cooking surfaces, and oils used to prepare your meal aren't also used to make the food you need to avoid.
  • Keep an epinephrine injector on you at all times.

They can help you figure out where your problem food might be lurking. If you're eliminating something nutritious like milk from your diet, they can help you find other ways to get important nutrients.