Raising awareness about food allergies
By Beth Cecil, Mind and Body, Messenger-Inquirer
“Don’t forget your epinephrine pen!” I reminded my son recently as he headed out of town for the weekend. “I know, Mom,” Nathan replied, most likely with a big eye roll. Yes, he is 23 years old and yes, I still feel the need to remind him regularly to keep his epinephrine with him. While it has been almost 20 years since his severe allergic reaction to just half a cashew, that momentous night remains in my mind as if it happened just yesterday.
If you know me, you likely know that my son has a life-threatening food allergy to tree nuts, and perhaps you have even heard the story of Nathan’s scary trip to the emergency room at just 3 years old with a serious anaphylactic reaction. But his story is worth repeating as my 20-year quest to raise awareness of food allergies continues.
A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakes a harmless food — the allergen — as a harmful threat and attacks it. Allergic reactions to food can have mild symptoms, like an itchy mouth and some hives, or they can be severe, like Nathan’s, and lead to anaphylaxis. Anaphylactic reactions are sudden and may involve several of the body’s systems, including the skin, GI tract, cardiovascular system and respiratory system, and can lead to death. Food allergies should always be taken seriously and be considered potentially life threatening.
Food allergies do not discriminate and can develop in childhood or adulthood. Sometimes they can be outgrown, but not always. One thing is certain: Most everyone knows somebody with a food allergy.
Food allergy facts
- Food allergies are on the rise and approximately 32 million Americans suffer from a food allergy. When I wrote about this about 8 years ago, this number was 15 million!
- 1 in every 13 children has a food allergy.
- Every 3 minutes, a food allergy reaction sends a person to the ER, with nearly 200,000 Americans needing medical treatment for an allergic reaction to food each year.
- While there are more than 170 foods that have been known to cause allergic reactions, there are eight foods that account for the majority of reactions. These foods, often known as “The Big 8”, include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.
- There is no cure for food allergies; strict avoidance of the food is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction.
- For people at risk for a severe reaction (anaphylaxis), epinephrine is prescribed and available with an auto-injector. Timely access to epinephrine could mean the difference between life and death.
Life with a food allergy is challenging. I know this first hand. Grocery shopping takes much longer as each and every food label must be closely examined. Allergy-friendly foods can be hard to find and often are costly. Special occasions and events that should be fun and exciting — the first day at a new school, dinners out, picnics, potlucks and birthday parties — often create anxiety and fear instead. All social events have to be planned along with having to have a backup plan and standby meal.
Hope for those with food allergies
But there is hope. The public is becoming more aware of the severity of food allergies, and people are more vigilant. Immunotherapy research continues. Programs are available now for better management of food allergies in schools. And those suffering from food allergy are finding support systems. There are online support groups and resources such as FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) and the Kids with Food Allergies website. This year in preparation for Food Allergy week, the dietitians at the Owensboro Health Healthpark will be offering a free virtual cooking class called Safe Eats: Allergy Free Cooking. This will be offered at 5:30 April 29, and people can register by calling 270-688-4804.
Food Allergy Awareness Week
Each May, FARE recognizes Food Allergy Awareness Week, a full week devoted to educating others and increasing public awareness of food allergies. This year this will be held from May 9-15. Although this is still a few weeks away, you can mark your calendar now and be sure to remember a friend or loved one in your life with food allergies. For more information check out the FARE website at www.foodallergy.org.
About the author
Beth Cecil, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian and the Manager of Community Wellness for Owensboro Health. She has been practicing at a dietitian for 24 years and has spent the past 13 years working in wellness, health promotion and community education with Owensboro Health. Beth is passionate about wellness and nutrition and works hard to promote Owensboro Health’s mission to improve the health of our community.