Writer Leslie Foster explains the life-threatening nature of food allergies and why she lives with a persistent fear for her child’s safety.
Food is one of the most common causes of anaphylaxis (the most severe form of allergic reaction), and because I have a child with an anaphylactic food allergy, I will live with a nagging fear for his safety for the rest of my life.
If that sounds overly dramatic, consider this: even a small “hidden” amount of an allergen in food or a trace amount transferred to a plate, glass, or utensil has the potential to cause a severe, possibly life-threatening, allergic reaction.
Anytime we are outside of our home, I can never be sure my child is safe. What if a child at school had peanut butter toast for breakfast and didn’t wash his hands? What if the chef at a restaurant misread an ingredient label?
A comment on a recent blog post on Yummy Mummy Club’s website suggested that for a peanut-allergic child, allowing peanut products into a school is no different than leaving a loaded gun lying around for any child to play with. They both put children’s lives in imminent danger. I relate to this mother’s feelings.
Though there are many theories as to why food allergies seem to be on the rise. Scientists are unclear as to what causes people to have or develop anaphylactic allergies. Genetics appear to play a role, with a child’s risk of developing allergies increasing if one parent also has allergies.
What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction. It is rapid in onset and may cause death. The immune system treats an allergen as something to be rejected in a process called sensitization. Re-exposure to the same allergen may result in a severe allergic reaction.
Recognizing the signs of an anaphylactic reaction
Regardless of the allergy, any of the following symptoms can appear alone or in combination during an anaphylactic reaction:
• Skin: hives, swelling, itching, warmth, redness, rash
• Breathing: coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain/tightness, throat tightness, hoarse voice, nasal congestion or hay fever-like symptoms (runny itchy nose and watery eyes, sneezing), trouble swallowing
• Stomach: nausea, pain/cramps, vomiting, diarrhea
• Heart: pale/blue colour, weak pulse, passing out, dizzy/lightheaded, shock
• Other: anxiety, feeling of “impending doom,” headache, uterine cramps, metallic taste
Early symptoms should NEVER be ignored because symptoms can progress rapidly, especially if the person has suffered an anaphylactic reaction in the past.
The most common food allergens in Canada
Peanuts, tree nuts, seafood (fish, shellfish, crustaceans), egg, milk, sesame, soy, wheat, mustard, and sulphites.
Avoiding allergic reactions
There are several steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of accidental exposure to allergens. For the allergic person, it is critical to avoid their allergen, read ingredient labels, take special precautions for food preparation, and thoroughly and frequently wash hands, particularly before consuming food.
It is also highly recommended to wear MedicAlertidentification which can help communicate that you need emergency treatment, since it may be difficult to talk during a severe anaphylactic reaction. Because there is no cure, you can only manage the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Mild reactions can usually be treated with an antihistamine such as Benadryl. More serious reactions require timely injection of epinephrine/adrenaline (there are two auto-injectors currently used in Canada, EpiPen and Allerject) and a visit to the nearest emergency room for treatment and monitoring.
Food allergies have been recognized as a serious health concern by the Government of Canada, which has taken steps to ensure proper labelling of food products, indicating whether the product contains or may have come in contact with the most common allergens. Canada’s new food allergen labelling regulations came into effect in August 2012.
Also, in 2005, the Government of Ontario passed Sabrina’s Law, which requires that all school boards in Ontario establish and maintain an anaphylaxis policy. Other provinces including Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Newfoundland, also have legislation or guidelines.
It is not a myth. People with food allergies can have a serious reaction from kissing someone who has recently eaten a food allergen.
For now, hypervigilance, strict avoidance, wearing MedicAlert identification and carrying an epinephrine/adrenaline auto-injector are the best defence for people with life-threatening allergies.
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