Imagine your throat closing up and having difficulty breathing from eating something as innocent as a homemade cookie. People who suffer from severe food allergies try to prepare for this very scenario. The number of people suffering from food allergies is rising. Food allergies are often seen in combination with asthma or eczema, which appear to run in families. One family member may have asthma while another has eczema and a third person has food allergies.
Food allergies can manifest themselves in different ways. Symptoms may occur within a few minutes or a few hours after exposure and represent an abnormal reaction to food by the body's immune system. Skin rashes may appear as "hives," or they may appear as dry patches of skin like eczema. A person may have itching of the mouth or gastrointestinal symptoms like stomach pain or diarrhea. The most severe reaction is known as anaphylaxis. A person who is suffering from anaphylaxis will have difficulty breathing and swelling of the lips, face, neck, and throat. He may also have a drop in blood pressure.
Anyone who has ever had a severe reaction must carry a dose of epinephrine (adrenaline) with him at all times in the event of an accidental ingestion of the allergen or offending food. The most commonly used device is known as an EpiPen which holds a dose of epinephrine in a pen-like auto-injector that is used on the thigh during an acute attack.
Epinephrine helps to reduce the symptoms hopefully long enough for the person to receive medical attention at the closest emergency room.
How sensitive a person is to a food allergen also varies. For example, some people may be sensitive enough to peanuts that simply touching a peanut butter sandwich or even being in the same room where they can smell it will cause a reaction. People who are highly allergic to certain foods must take great care to avoid them. The Food and Drug Administration now requires food labels to list the top eight food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts), fish, shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp), soy, and wheat.
Avoiding these foods may not always be easy, especially when eating out or attending social functions where it may be difficult to determine the ingredients in the food being served. In these situations it is important to ask about the ingredients to ensure that it is safe. Knowing how the food is prepared is critical as well. A dish may not have the food allergen in the recipe, but it may be contaminated with the food allergen if they were cooked in the same pot or if the ingredients were prepared on the same cutting board. Some people with severe allergies find it easier to make their own meals or keep safe snacks readily available.
Some people may grow out of certain food allergies like milk or egg. However, peanut allergy is usually lifelong. Scientists are conducting research on why the number of people with food allergies is increasing. One theory is the "hygiene hypothesis" which suggests that modern day cleanliness is limiting the exposure of children to infectious organisms that would help the immune system to develop properly. Another theory is that the modern diet includes more processed foods which have more food allergens that sensitize the body. Whatever the reason for the increase in food allergies, those who have a food allergy certainly appreciate conscientious efforts like clear labels on the goods at a bake sale, a host's recommendations on foods at a party, or a restaurant staff member's time to ensure a safe and enjoyable meal.