If you feel like you’re hearing about more people with food allergies these days, it’s not just your imagination. Food allergies affect about 4% of adults and 8% of children – about 15 million Americans total – double the rate from just five years ago.
Reactions to food allergies can range from hives and swelling to fainting, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat and even death if emergency treatment isn’t available. Nationally, food allergies alone account for 30,000 emergency room visits and as many as 150 to 200 deaths every year.
The sharp rise in food allergies is a major concern for Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS). The system has approximately 1,000 students with known allergies and prescriptions for epinephrine auto-injectors (EAIs) in case of exposure during the school day. All FCPS staff has received instruction on common allergens, signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, and an overview of the use of EAIs. Each school has at least three staff-members who have been trained by the school nurse to administer epinephrine when it’s needed, and as of October (2012) each health room has been stocked with EAIs.
There is no known cure for food allergies, and since the most common allergy-inducing foods (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat) are also some of the most commonly-used ingredients in the food we eat, strict avoidance is a challenge. Even if people with food allergies are successful in avoiding their trigger foods, cross-contamination of utensils, cooking surfaces, or even a chef’s hands can lead to exposure.
While historically many children have outgrown allergies to milk, egg, soy and wheat by about age 10, they appear to be resolving more slowly. Most nut and fish allergies remain life-long conditions.
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) offers advice on how to read a label (PDF) with food allergies in mind. FAAN has also produced the following video profiling a family’s efforts to cope with serious food allergies.