The national Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 12 million Americans have a food allergy. Broken down, it is estimated that about 6% of children under age 3 and 3.5-4% of the overall population has a food allergy. Combined, food allergies cause 30,000 cases of anaphylaxis, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 150 deaths annually.
Difference between food allergy and food intolerance
Many people think the terms food allergy and food intolerance mean the same thing; they do not! Food intolerance is not life-threatening. Lactose intolerance (trouble digesting the milk sugar lactose) is a common example. Symptoms may include abdominal cramps, bloating and diarrhea. Food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein which can lead to a variety of symptoms including anaphylaxis.
What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death. Symptoms typically appear within minutes to two hours after the person has eaten the food to which he or she is allergic. The severity of an allergic reaction is unpredictable: a seemingly mild reaction can become life-threatening within minutes. Early recognition of symptoms and prompt administration of epinephrine are critical to survival!
•a tingling sensation in the mouth •swelling of the tongue and the throat •difficulty breathing •hives •vomiting •abdominal cramps •diarrhea •drop in blood pressure •loss of consciousness •a sense of doom •death
Keep in mind too that reactions are unpredictable. They can be the same, less severe than, or more severe than previous reactions. Additionally, an individual may not always experience the same symptoms of an allergic reaction (for example, an individual may have hives with one reaction and vomiting with a subsequent reaction). Ingestion of even trace amounts of the allergen can cause a reaction.
Although an individual could be allergic to any food, such as fruits, vegetables, and meats, there are eight foods that account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions.
•cow’s milk/dairy •egg •peanut •tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans, almonds, and cashews) •fish (such as bass, cod, flounder) •shellfish (such as crab, lobster, shrimp) •soybeans •wheat
While 3.3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, 6.9 million are allergic to seafood!
What can we do to avoid an allergic reaction to food?
Vigilance is the key. Read the ingredient labels on all packaged foods to make sure that they do not contain any allergens. Avoid items from the bulk section and homemade items. If you’re not sure whether a product contains a problem ingredient, call the manufacturer to find out. If you are still not sure, avoid it. Keep in mind too that manufacturers may change ingredients or equipment at any time. Each time you purchase a “safe” food you need to read the label again.
Dining out is especially tricky. Many parents of young children prefer to bring safe food along or skip dining out until the child is older. When you do dine out, make sure the dishes you order are allergen-free. This is done by calling the restaurant in advance and/or talking to the chef or manager (not the server as vital information may get lost in the shuffle from table to table). Of course, if you are in doubt about any food avoid it. Keep in mind, people sometimes are exposed to problem foods in spite of their best efforts and the good will of everyone around them. Be sure to carry your medication (EpiPen® or other auto-injector) and consider emergency identification jewelry for additional security.
Currently, there is no cure for food allergies and studies are inconclusive about whether food allergies can be prevented. Epinephrine, also called adrenaline, is the medication of choice for controlling a severe reaction. It is available by prescription as a self-injectable device (EpiPen).
You are not alone!
At first, trying to cope with your child’s food allergy may be overwhelming. There will be times when eating safely and protecting your child will feel like an overwhelming and difficult task. But eventually, managing your child’s food allergies will become part of your daily routine. Greater Buffalo Food Allergy Alliance is here to help!
___My child has been to a board certified allergist to diagnose and evaluate his or her food allergies.
___I know how to read labels and avoid the allergen; I read the label every time.
___My child’s allergist has provided a written Food Allergy Emergency Plan.
___We have an epinephrine autoinjector and know exactly how and when to use it.
___I have instructed my child's caregivers (daycare, baby sitter, relatives) in allergy avoidance, how to recognize the symptoms of a reaction, the importance of prompt treatment and how to use an epinephrine autoinjector
___I have met with teachers and staff at my child's school or daycare to make sure everyone understands the action plan and the seriousness of food allergies.
___As my child grows, we review how he/she can keep safe and I offer age appropriate information regarding food allergies.
1.Report on the Expert Panel on Food Allergy Research, June 30 and July 1, 2003, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health. http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/about/organization/dait/PDF/june30_2003.pdf [PDF 190K].