Google Can’t Diagnose Your Food Allergy

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I have a love-hate relationship with the internet. On the one hand, it’s a great place to learn how to fix a hem, Scrabble-certified words with Z and X, and the capital of Malta. Unless you know where to search and the credible sources, the internet is not always a great place to learn about science and nutrition, and food allergies are no different.

Thanks to the many symptom checkers that can be searched on Google, a few checks in a box can “diagnose” someone with an allergy. But while people flock to Dr. Google, they forget that he never got his M.D.

Why Are People Diagnosing Themselves with a Food Allergy?

To understand why people are self-diagnosing, we need to understand allergic reactions. An allergic reaction is “when the immune system overreacts to a harmless substance known as an allergen.” Reactions to food allergens can range from mild — hives, itchy mouth or ear canal, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, nasal congestion and sneezing — to severe – trouble swallowing, shortness of breath, turning blue, drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness.

So does this mean that any of these symptoms can indicate an allergic reaction? No, and this is where people get confused. Symptoms of an allergic reaction are associated not only with an allergy. There are also many medical conditions — including celiac disease, lactose intolerance and asthma — that can produce similar symptoms. This is why a food allergy, and any allergy from bee stings to pet dander, can be determined only by a board-certified allergist.

Why Does This Matter?

With a quick perusal of many online discussions on food, you will see that a lot of people claim to have a food allergy. From recognized food allergens like peanuts and diary, to more questionable substances like MSG and “chemicals in food.” While we never can be certain of claims found online, some people simply don’t have the allergies they claim to have. Although rare, a reaction to MSG would be triggered even when consuming foods like tomatoes, asparagus and parmesan cheese — three foods with naturally occurring MSG. While an allergy to “chemicals” would be triggered all the time since everything, including the human body, is made up of chemicals.

But what about the people who accurately diagnose themselves with a food allergy? The most obvious problem is that they may not receive the necessary education and monitoring from a medical professional. A person may have a false sense of safety regarding allergic reactions. Someone who consistently has mild reactions may assume it is the only reaction they will ever have.

But past reactions do not predict future ones. Anaphylaxis is unpredictable; what previously caused a mild reaction could suddenly trigger a life-threatening situations. And people who have not seen a medical professional about their allergies may be unprepared in the event of an emergency.

So if you think you have a food allergy and have never been professionally diagnosed, we recommend that you close your web browser and make an appointment with your doctor or healthcare provider.