Food allergies: A matter of life and death

by Jan Wilson

If you've been told that your child can no longer bring a PB&J to school, or that no egg products are allowed in cakes to be sold at the fall bake sale, you're not the first parent to wonder how common food allergies are.

May 9-15 is is the Seventh Annual Food Allergy Awareness Week, and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) hopes that Americans continue to get the message that food allergies are sometimes literally a matter of life and death.

In a press release announcing the event, Anne Munoz-Furlong, the organization's chief executive and founder, says, "Food allergy awareness continues to grow, but there are still too many people who don't understand how serious a food-allergic reaction can be. Convincing others that food allergies are real and getting accurate information about food ingredients when eating away from home remain some of the most difficult challenges of living with the disease."

And just how many people are living with food allergies? FAAN estimates one in 20 children under 3 in this country has food allergies, and about two million school-aged children have one. Overall, 11 million Americans suffer from food allergy, with 6.5 million allergic to seafood and three million allergic to peanut and tree nuts.

Patricia Szobar, an American living temporarily in Berlin, was shocked by her son Noah's violent reaction to milk while still an infant.

"His allergy was diagnosed at seven months when he had a serious reaction to his first bottle of infant formula. He'd been entirely breastfed and had just started on solids a month earlier; we decided to try a bottle of formula to see if it would help him sleep through the night and within minutes he was vomiting, swollen, and covered in hives. A few minutes after that he started to seem floppy and unresponsive, and we ended up rushing him to the hospital."

Food allergies can cause symptoms that range from the mild discomfort of watery eyes or a stomach upset, to violent gastric distress or inability to breathe. Over 30,000 emergency room admissions each year are due to food allergies.

Rand Mallone, MD, president of the Florida Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Association said that children can be tested for allergies very early in life.

"We can test a kid two or three months of age for food allergies. I think it's reasonable that if you eliminate a food and that works, you don't need to get a skin test. And if your pediatrician is good he can tell you about an elimination diet. Most food allergies, except peanuts, are outgrown," he added.

The theme of this year's Awareness week is ACT:

  • Avoid Offending Foods
  • Carry Medications
  • Treat Symptoms quickly

Parents can avoid offending foods by reading all food labels carefully, looking not only for the allergen but for statements that say that a product was manufactured in the same plant as other foods containing the allergen. Parents also should make sure that the child, or the child's caregiver, carries appropriate medications at all times.

Parents must also make caregivers and schools aware of their children's allergy, and precisely how it is being treated.

Marlene Barron, Ph.D., and head of school at a private preschool in New York City, said that often the doctors don't mention food allergies on required school medical forms.

"I am shocked at how many times the doctor doesn't say it and the parent says it. You always have to be straightforward and open because you as the parent are going to know more about it than the average person is," she said.

Jan Wilson is a freelance writer with experience in parenting and pregnancy publications with over a decade's experience in the publishing industry, most recently working for Dow Jones, publishers of the Wall Street Journal, in a variety of editorial, marketing and new media positions.She is a graduate of Northwestern University's journalism school and been published nationally in Marie Claire magazine, EPregnancy, Parenthood.com, Blackfamilies.com, Moms Online and CareerJournal. She is a contributing editor to Teenage Buzz, a regional teen magazine based in California, and the Money Matters columnist for the Parent Paper, a regional parenting publication in New Jersey.

All content copyrighted © Jan Wilson. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.