Food allergies: More serious than you might think

Thursday, December 22, 2005

As tragic food allergies draw attention, a new law has been passed requiring simple language on labels.

The bucket of peanuts served on every table at Logan's Roadhouse prevents the Philipps family from dining at the restaurant.

At every other dining establishment, Amy Philipps has to ask the server if the french fries are fried in peanut oil.

Philipps' 7-year-old son, Alex, is one of 3 million Americans who suffer from a peanut allergy.

In the past five years, the estimated number of Americans with food allergies has increased from 6 million to approximately 11 million, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Many allergists say the increase is due to better diagnosis.

Major attention has been drawn to food allergies recently after the death of a 15-year-old Canadian teenager at the end of November. The girl, who was allergic to peanuts, died after kissing her boyfriend, who had eaten a peanut butter sandwich hours earlier.

In fact, legislators have passed a new federal law requiring food manufacturers to use simple language -- milk instead of "caseinates," egg instead of "albumin" -- on the food products' ingredients lists. The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2006, will apply to food labels containing the eight most common food allergens.

Although an individual could be allergic to any food, such as fruits, vegetables and meats, 90 percent of food-allergic reactions are due eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, cashews, etc.), fish, shellfish, soy or wheat.

Cape Girardeau allergist Dr. Michael Critchlow said food allergies seem to be more common today. But at one time, he said, food allergies were often diagnosed as other illnesses.

Doctors now have better ways to diagnose food allergies, such as skin or blood tests, Critchlow said.

"A lot of people think food allergies are a joke or that they don't exist," said Dr. Robert Sacha, Cape Girardeau allergist. "People kind of laugh at them. But it's a very serious matter."

Julie Findlay, of Jackson, has severe food allergies. She's allergic to all meats except pork as well as corn, tomatoes, apples, milk and eggs.

When someone with a food allergy has a severe reaction to a food, it can result in anaphylaxis shock. The person's lips begin to tingle, the throat tightens and the person is unable to breathe. Other symptoms can include hives or high blood pressure.

Over the past two years, Findlay, 25, has gone into anaphylaxis shock about four times. A couple of those times were when she was dining at a restaurant.

"When I go to restaurants, I tell them 'I'm highly allergic to certain foods'," she said. "Since everyone has gone on all these crazy diets, I think waiters just think I'm on one of those diets. I'm always scared to go to restaurants."

Alex Philipps was taken to a doctor at 5 months old when he wasn't able to drink a milk-based formula. The doctor tested Alex for a milk allergy and at the same visit, discovered he was allergic to peanuts.

"The milk allergy went away, but the doctor said his peanut allergy will get worse as he grows older," Philipps said.

Critchlow said most people outgrow their food allergies, although peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are often considered life-long allergies.

For Findlay, her allergies have gotten worse as she grows older, but she has learned to deal with her condition.

"Every time I've gone into anaphylaxis shock, it's by complete accident," she said. "I've just learned to live with it. I could have something a lot worse than a food allergy."

According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, peanut allergies kill nearly 100 people a year in the United States and can account for 30,000 emergency room visits.

"One of the major problems with food allergies, such as what happened to that young girl, is that some people are extremely sensitive to trace amounts," Critchlow said. "Some people are so sensitive to even the smell of a particular food that it could cause them to have an allergic reaction."

That is the case for Alex Philipps.

"The smell of peanuts really bothers him," his mother said. "If someone is next to him eating a peanut butter sandwich, that can really irritate his allergy."

At restaurants, Critchlow said, cooks need to be extremely thorough when washing dishes after preparing food in them.

"Even a trace amount of peanut oil left in a pan to cook something at restaurants could trigger an allergic reaction," Critchlow said.

Amy Philipps said Alex had one severe allergic reaction to a cereal which is no longer on the market. Philipps carefully checks ingredients on the food she buys, but the cereal wasn't labeled correctly. Alex had a reaction similar to an asthma attack. "His wind pipes closed up and he wasn't able to breath," Philipps said.

Sacha said he sees about 10 to 15 new patients per year with a severe food allergy.

"I've seen one person die from a food allergy," he said. "They're really are a serious problem. The last thing you want is death for something that really can be avoided."

There is no cure for food allergies. Strict avoidance from the food is the only prevention.

Critchlow said the first method of treatment for an allergic reaction is an EpiPen -- an adrenaline shot used to reverse the effects of severe allergic reactions by reducing throat swelling, opening airways and maintaining blood pressure.

To some degree food allergies are hereditary, Critchlow said. But no one else in the Philipps family has allergic reactions to any food.

"We just have to be really cautious with him and take as many precautions as we can," she said.

jfreeze@semissourian.com

335-6611 ext. 131

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