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Child food allergies: It can be life or death

Chuck, I think food allergies often are overlooked and pose a significant health threat for kids. Care to comment about them? – Sarah S., Memphis, Tenn.

A new study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine revealed that about 8 percent of U.S. children, roughly 6 million, have a food allergy, and many of them have multiple allergies.

The research was published in the June edition of Pediatrics. It reported that among children with a food allergy, more than 1 in 3 have a history of severe reactions, and about 30 percent have multiple food allergies.

The study surveyed the parents of more than 40,000 children, with the goal of better estimating the prevalence and severity of childhood food allergies in the U.S.

CNN reported some very interesting points that the study yielded:

Most startling, the findings showed that food allergies in children are more prevalent than previously reported; estimates had ranged from 2-8 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of kids with a food allergy went up 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. And other studies show that the reason may be the average Western diet – with all of its sugars, animal fats and processed foods – which has made us more susceptible to developing allergies and other illnesses. Our resistance isn’t what it should be because we don’t consume the right foods.

The research revealed that the top three foods children are allergic to are peanuts (25.2 percent of children who have a food allergy), milk (21.1 percent) and shellfish (17.2 percent).

Food allergy reactions can range from mild to severe. The Mayo Clinic highlighted some symptoms you can look for. The most common include:

  • Tingling or itching in the mouth
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, throat or other parts of the body
  • Hives, itching or eczema
  • Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.
  • A food allergy also can trigger a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This can cause life-threatening symptoms, including:

  • A swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in your throat that makes it difficult to breathe
  • Constriction or tightening of airways
  • Shock, with a severe drop in blood pressure
  • Rapid pulse or heartbeats
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness.
  • Anaphylaxis symptoms should be treated immediately in an emergency room because they can lead to a coma or even death. That is why this new study is so critical and why the escalation in numbers of children with food allergies is so alarming.

    Dr. Ruchi Gupta, associate professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine and leader of the study, said, “Sometimes when people think of food (allergies), they think of rash or stomachache. What I don’t think people understand is that it can be life-threatening. You can have a severe reaction and end up in the hospital and even die of food allergy.”

    Unfortunately, there is no symptom-eliminating treatment for food allergies besides identifying and avoiding the food that causes a reaction. An epinephrine auto-injector is available with a prescription, and the shot of adrenaline it delivers can minimize or reverse a life-threatening allergic reaction. But as Dr. Jeffrey Adelglass from the Allergy Testing and Treatment Center in Texas told CNN, it is only a “time management tool” to get someone safely to the emergency room.

    If you suspect that your child has a food allergy, talk to your doctor or health practitioner and get your child tested by a certified allergist. If your child is allergic to a particular food, make a food allergy action plan that incorporates everyone who may offer your child something to eat. The nonprofit Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network offers a great online template. Check labels and ingredients everywhere (including at restaurants and school cafeterias), and avoid foods like the plague that include what your child is allergic to.

    Further educate yourself on food allergies by joining support networks. FAAN’s website offers many great resources for families that are affected by food allergies.