It is estimated that 5-10% of the elderly population is faced with food allergies – but that the prevalence is underestimated and undertreated.
For Seniors: What Are Food Allergies?
In theory, it can be easy to confuse food intolerance for a food allergy. The former primarily involves the digestive system and its inability to properly break down certain foods. Food intolerance can cause everything from nausea to bloating and cramps. With food intolerance, you can generally consume small amounts of the food without causing much of a reaction. On the other hand, reactions from a food allergy can be much more serious, and contact with even trace amounts of offensive foods can be life-threatening.
Food allergies (commonly linked to foods such as peanuts, shellfish, soy, and wheat) are directly involved with the immune system. For those with a food allergy, the body produces an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (or IgE). When an offensive food allergen binds to these antibodies, they trigger immune cells to release histamine and other chemicals, leading to a number of potential symptoms.
- Redness of the skin or eyes
- Nasal congestion or sneezing
- Shortness of breath
- Sudden drop in blood pressure
- Swelling of lips, tongue, or throat
Food Allergies: A Growing Problem for Elders
A common misconception regarding food allergies is that they only develop during childhood. In reality, food allergies can manifest at any point in life, and while the first appearance is not readily seen in older adults, many are still faced with symptoms due to an allergy’s persistence late in life. In fact, food allergies are becoming more prevalent within the rapidly growing senior population. The scientific community has yet to conclude the exact reason behind this increase. The aging of the immune system – or immunosenescence – is a factor, according to some. Others theorize that we, as a society, are not developing the proper immunities quickly enough, due to the overly hygienic standards put in place.
Detecting a Senior Food Allergy
If a senior is concerned about the possibility of having a food allergy, it’s important to receive a diagnostic food allergy test from an allergist. Below are the four most common diagnostic tests. Note that all of these tests should be conducted under the supervision of allergists and other medical professionals (as necessary).
Skin prick test: This involves an allergist allowing a small amount of food allergen to enter the surface of the skin on the forearm or back. If a wheal – small raised bump surrounded by red, itchy skin – is produced, it generally indicates an allergy exists.
Blood test: This tends to be more costly than the skin prick test, and is used to detect the quantity of IgE antibodies to help determine potential triggers. Though this test can yield helpful information regarding the chance of a food allergy’s existence, it does not necessarily provide information on the severity of the allergy.
Oral food challenge (OFC): Known to be one of the more accurate methods of food allergy detection, an OFC involves an allergist providing small samples of potentially offensive foods to the subject, followed by periods of observation/identification of reaction. If a reaction occurs, no more food is given.
Food elimination diet: Typically used in unison with skin or blood tests, the food elimination diet is exactly as it sounds. The test involves the elimination of potentially offensive foods from one’s diet to determine the cause of allergy symptoms, over a finite duration with close monitoring.
Senior Food Allergies: Management Is Key
If your loved ones are faced with a food allergy, it is important that they treat it seriously and take the proper precautions. Understanding which foods are offensive is naturally the first step, but it must be followed by strict, active avoidance. They should read food labels carefully and avoid any potential cross-contamination when preparing meals. However, even with the most stringent measures in place, there’s always a chance that a reaction may occur. That’s why, in addition to having a plan in place for such an occurrence, it is vital that your loved ones have their emergency medication with them at all times – even if they do not anticipate being around food of any kind.
Comfort Keepers® Can Help
We can work with your loved ones’ medical provider to understand their food allergies. And with that knowledge, we can help prepare meals and remind your loved ones of which foods to avoid. Our caregivers will provide meaningful day-to-day interactions, while promoting physical and emotional wellbeing – which, in turn, will help eliminate worry for you and other family members. Reach out to your local Comfort Keepers® for more information.
- Food Allergy Research & Education. “About Food Allergy.” Web. 2017.
- Senior Health 365. “Food Intolerance and Malabsorption in the Elderly.” Web. 2011.
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. “Food Allergies.” Web. 2017.
- Today’s Geriatric Medicine. “Late-Onset Food Allergies” by Larissa T. Brophy. Web. 2015.