You probably know someone with a food allergy. Studies have shown that the prevalence of food allergies among children increased by nearly 20 percent from 1997 to 2007.
Recent research shows food allergies — an emerging public health issue — affect about one in 13 children. Among adults, an estimated nine million Americans, or four percent of the population, have a food allergy. In Maine, that translates to more than 50,000 residents with a food allergy.
The most common food allergies are to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.
What you may not know or understand is that food allergies are potentially life-threatening. Nearly 40 percent of children with food allergies have experienced severe reactions such as anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction with rapid onset that may cause death. Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency department, and every six minutes, the reaction is one of anaphylaxis.
Only epinephrine, available by prescription in the form of an auto-injector, can reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
This makes it critical for all of us to educate ourselves and do our part to help protect those with food allergies. This week, the 15th annual observance of Food Allergy Awareness Week, a national awareness campaign started by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, is the perfect opportunity to learn more.
Food allergy reactions are more than just rashes or hives. Sadly, the headlines of recent months about deaths from food allergy reactions prove this point.
Food allergies are not dietary preferences or intolerances. A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein. Ingestion of the food may trigger the sudden release of chemicals, including histamine, resulting in symptoms of an allergic reaction. Reactions can range from mild (rashes, hives, itching) to severe (trouble breathing, wheezing, obstructive swelling).
There is no cure for food allergies. Avoidance and education are the keys to successfully managing them. Individuals with food allergies must be vigilant in avoiding harmful foods by taking extra precautions with grocery shopping, dining out, traveling and in schools.
As we work toward finding a cure, we can help prevent tragedies and reduce the number of food-allergic reactions by educating each other and becoming more aware of the daily challenges faced by families living with food allergies.
For more information about food allergies, visit foodallergy.org.
Contributed by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.