Most people associate allergies with little more than annoying sniffles, sneezes and wheezes. But for sufferers of some food allergies, reactions can be far more serious - even fatal.
And, experts say, the most frustrating aspect of food-allergy deaths is that many of them could have been prevented.
Watch out for nuts
While many common food allergies are caused by shellfish and other fish, as well as milk, soy, wheat and eggs, the most life-threatening allergies are triggered by nuts, says Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network founder Anne Munoz-Furlong.
“In every study on food-allergy deaths we’ve looked at, peanuts and tree nuts accounted for over 90 percent of allergic-reaction fatalities,” she says.
Dining out can be a problem
Munoz-Furlong says food-allergy sufferers face the greatest risks when they eat out and aren’t told truthfully whether nuts were used in the preparation of their meal.
“In the research we looked at, time and again allergy sufferers would ask about the food they were about to eat and identified themselves as being very allergic, but they were not given the right information,” she says.
Some food-allergy sufferers can have severe reactions to even trace amounts of peanuts, Munoz-Furlong says.
In one case in a food establishment, a boy who ordered an ice cream sundae sent it back because he was allergic to the peanuts on it. The kitchen simply picked off the peanuts, applied more whipped cream and sent the sundae back to him. He subsequently had a severe reaction, Munoz-Furlong says.
Lack of awareness can be fatal
It’s those kinds of shortcuts and a lack of awareness that can cost people their lives.
In another case, Munoz-Furlong says, a woman at a wedding reception in upstate New York asked the waiter whether there were peanuts in the cookies he was serving. The waiter said no. But because the cookies had been made with a spatula used to make another dish containing peanuts, the woman had a severe reaction and died.
“If the waiter or waitress had taken just a few more minutes, thought about the question and answered it properly, that person might be here today,” Munoz-Furlong says.
Don’t take the waiter’s word
Allergy sufferers also must be sure to clearly communicate their needs to food establishments.
“We did see a trend with the majority of fatalities being among individuals ages 10 to 19, and we believe it’s because this group of people is still learning how to eat out away from home,” Munoz-Furlong says.
“They are spending a lot of time in the company of friends and grabbing food here and there and are more susceptible to listening to other people - and that makes them more vulnerable.”
Dr Scott Sicherer, with the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, says all food-allergy sufferers who dine out, regardless of age, shouldn’t blindly place their trust in the waiter or waitress.
“It may not be the waiter they need to talk to. It may be the chef or some other staff member who has more to do with food preparation,” he says.
Asian restaurants can be a killer
Sicherer says food-allergy sufferers also may want to rethink going to Asian restaurants and ice cream parlours - both of which use many nut products - because of the high number of reactions that occur at such places.
“There may be some places that simply should be off-limits to people with allergies. But if they must go, the main thing we suggest is that they have strong communication with the correct people at the restaurant,” Sicherer says.
Eight foods have been pinpointed
Over 90 percent of the life-threatening reactions are caused by eight foods: peanuts, eggs, milk, wheat, tree nuts, soy, fish and shellfish, according to the American Federal Drug Administration.
In a true food allergy, the body’s immune system recognises an allergen in the food - usually a protein - as alien and reacts by making antibodies to halt the invasion. The ensuing battle causes a multitude of symptoms, from swelling of the lips, stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, hives, rashes and eczema, to wheezing and severe breathing problems and even death.
Cow’s milk, eggs, wheat and soy are the most common sources of food allergies in children. Allergists believe that infant allergies are the result of young immune systems and, to some extent, immature intestinal tracts. Children sometimes outgrow the allergies, but an early peanut allergy may last a lifetime. Adults are usually most affected by tree nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish. - (HealthDayNews)
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD