By Judy Rupp commentary
Jane dreaded it when the apartment complex would have a pizza or other snack night parties. But she knew she’d be even more embarrassed by a trip to the emergency room because of an allergic reaction.
Food allergies are becoming increasingly common. While they still affect only about four percent of the population, these allergies cause considerable anxiety for patients.
Many Americans experience unpleasant side effects from digesting certain foods — an upset stomach, bloating, gas or mild diarrhea. These reactions do not constitute an allergy but rather a food sensitivity or sometimes simply an aversion to certain foods.
A true food allergy, which is much less, common, is an abnormal response triggered by the immune system. Symptoms may include an itching or tingling in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and throat, hives, difficulty breathing, wheezing, vomiting, abdominal cramps, a drop in blood pressure and even loss of consciousness or death. Known as an anaphylactic reaction, this is a medical emergency which can occur within minutes or as long as two hours after the person has eaten the offending food.
These are not symptoms to take lightly. Allergic reactions send about 300,000 Americans to the emergency room each year and are implicated in about 150 deaths. There are other reasons for any of these symptoms and a food allergy is not something you can or should diagnose yourself. See a doctor for an examination and testing.
Although about 200 substances in food can potentially cause a reaction, 90 percent of allergies are to what is known as the Big Eight: Peanuts, tree nuts, cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, soybeans, shell fish and fish.
Eating the food, even in minuscule amounts, can bring on a reaction, often severe. For a person with a food allergy, the world around is fraught with danger. Taking the nuts off the top of a piece of carrot cake is no solution; the cake below has been contaminated. If a chocolate bar is made with machinery that previously processed nuts, it may as well be a handful of peanuts.
Allergic reactions are most common when the person is eating outside the home. The patient is advised to avoid buffets and salad bars, where cross contamination is possible.
The ultimate solution is to prevent the development of food allergies, and that would be simpler if scientists could explain the recent increase in the number of Americans plagued by food allergies.
There is clearly much to learn about food allergies, but an important first step is recognizing the danger. Food allergies are real, and 11 million Americans have one. On the other hand, six or seven times that number believe they have a food allergy, sometimes putting themselves at risk of dietary deficiencies by eliminating whole classes of foods.
If you are concerned about your reaction to certain foods, see a doctor. If you know someone who has a diagnosed food allergy, do your best to offer support and protection.
Rupp is information and assistance case manager with the Northern Oklahoma Development Authority Area Agency on Aging.