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Food Allergies are No Longer Rare - What You Need to Know

Food that causes allergies

Did you know that every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the Emergency Department? The occurrence of allergic disease is skyrocketing, says UCLA Health System, with some estimates stating that as many as one in five Americans have an allergic condition. The National Association of Nurses notes that 19% of these are children of school age.

That represents a 400% increase over the past twenty years.

To those of us dealing with food allergies every day, this is not a minor statistic. And it’s frightening. What if my child is away from home and has an allergic reaction? Will there be someone there who knows what to do?

First, it is important to understand what a food allergy truly is. An allergy is an over-reaction of the immune system to a protein it perceives as a threat. For people without allergies, the proteins in foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish are harmless. But for some, the body sees these as foreign invaders and sets a process in motion to fight the dangerous substance that results in rash or hives, nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea – and in some cases, life-threatening shortness of breath, swelling of the airways to the lungs and anaphylaxis.

The fighter proteins involved in this process are known as immunoglobulin E or IgE for short. The classic IgE response occurs within minutes or even seconds because these proteins are some of the most aggressive antibodies in the body.

You need to know the signs of food allergy

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Even if you do not have a child with a food allergy, you can help by recognizing the signs and learning how you can help. You could save a life by knowing what to do in the case of an emergency.

If the person is having a mild to moderate reaction, such as an itchy rash (but no issues with breathing), first be calm yourself and offer reassurance to the patient. Anxiety can make symptoms worse. Try to identify the allergen (remember, this may be the persons first experience and may not even know they were allergic) and have the person avoid further contact with it. Apply cool compresses and an over the counter hydrocortisone cream to an itchy rash. If appropriate to the patient, an OTC antihistamine such as Benadryl should be used. Watch for signs of increasing distress and get medical help immediately.

What to do

For a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), check the person's airway, breathing, and circulation (the ABC's of Basic Life Support). A warning sign of dangerous throat swelling is a very hoarse or whispered voice, or coarse sounds when the person is breathing in air. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.

2. Check for a Medical ID tag. This may provide information helpful to the 911 operators and the rescue team that arrives on the scene.
3. Calm and reassure the person.
4. If the allergic reaction is from a bee sting, scrape the stinger off the skin with something firm (such as a fingernail or plastic credit card). Do not use tweezers -- squeezing the stinger will release more venom.
5. If the person has emergency allergy medication (ie: An EPI-PEN) on hand, help the person take or inject the medication (see below). Avoid oral medication if the person is having difficulty breathing.
6. Take steps to prevent shock. Have the person lie flat, raise the person's feet about 12 inches, and cover him or her with a coat or blanket. Do NOT place the person in this position if a head, neck, back, or leg injury is suspected or if it causes discomfort.
7. DO NOT place a pillow under the person’s head if he or she is having trouble breathing. This can block the airways.

How to Use an EpiPen:
1. Hold firmly with orange tip pointing downward.
2. Remove blue safety cap by pulling straight up (do not bend or twist).
3. Push orange tip firmly into mid-outer thigh until you hear a click. Hold on thigh for several seconds to ensure all of the medication is released.

Prevention Magazine: Food Allergy versus Food Sensitivity: What You Need to Know
Food Allergy Research and Education, Inc (FARE)
National Institutes of Health