Food Allergies: Avoiding a Holiday Hazard

As holiday parties fill the calendar, many of us may forget or neglect to consider food allergies. With a staggering 2 percent of American adults and 8 percent of American children estimated to suffer from some form of a food allergy, carelessness toward ingredients can cause more discomfort than the visiting in-laws.
Because allergic reactions to food could appear within minutes or up to two hours after consumption, it is important to understand what is happening, to recognize the symptoms and to take preventive measures.

“Food allergies occur when the immune system responds to an ingredient that it mistakenly believes is harmful,” explains Sean Carroll, D.O., an osteopathic ear, nose and throat specialist from Erie, Pa. “Once this happens, it creates antibodies that later attack the ingredient anytime the individual eats a food made with that substance.”

Dr. Carroll further explains that when the immune system later releases the large amount of antibodies created for that ingredient, also known as an allergen, the antibodies trigger the allergic reaction.
Common allergic reactions include itching; hives or rashes on the skin; difficulty breathing or asthma symptoms; swelling of the lips or tongue; vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal cramping.

“Food allergies generally occur in people who have other types of allergies or if someone in their families suffers from allergies,” says Dr. Carroll.

In addition, he warns that food allergies may emerge even after eating a food for many years without any harmful reaction.

“Often during the holiday season, hosts and their guests get so wrapped up in the festivities that they forget about food allergies,” explains Dr. Carroll. “Then a guest grabs a pecan-crusted entrée without recognizing the nuts or enjoys a delicious hors d'oeuvre without knowing it has a fish-based sauce.”

Dr. Carroll advises holiday hosts to consider eliminating some ingredients from their dishes, or to inform their guests of the many ingredients within each of their dishes.

He explains that 90 percent of allergic reactions in children are caused by:
* Milk
* Eggs
* Nuts including peanuts, walnuts and pecans
* Wheat
* Soy

In adults, the foods that cause the majority of allergic reactions are:
* Nuts including peanuts, walnuts and pecans
* Seafood including fish and shellfish

If you have been diagnosed with a food allergy, Dr. Carroll recommends that you consult your allergist, or ask your primary care physician to refer you to one, before altering your diet. Also, you should consider these easy steps when attending holiday functions this season:

1. Avoid the foods that cause your allergy.

There are no medications that prevent food allergies. The only way to make sure you won’t react is to never taste, touch or even smell the food. Consider alerting your host to your allergies if he or she does not already know about them.

2. Always ask about ingredients.

Whether you are at a restaurant or at a friend’s party, ask about the food being served. This simple step will prevent you from eating a “hidden” ingredient that may cause a reaction. Dr. Carroll also cautions that picking ingredients out of an appetizer, entrée or dessert does not eliminate potential for an allergic reaction.

3. Read food labels.

Whenever a food label is available, read it. If your host is unsure about the ingredients in a dish, ask if he or she still has the label. To be effective, you should know the different names for foods that contribute to your allergy. For example, if you are allergic to milk you should recognize casein and lactulose as harmful ingredients. More information about food allergens can be found at www.foodallergy.org.

4. Be prepared for emergencies.

All patients with a serious food allergy should carry their prescribed medication with them at all times; this commonly consists of an injectable form of adrenaline or epinephrine. In addition, Dr. Carroll ecommends wearing an identification bracelet that describes the allergy.

“If you experience a life-threatening reaction, you should immediately inject the epinephrine and call 911 because you will need to be taken to the nearest emergency room,” cautions Dr. Carroll.

He further explains that taking these preventive steps to avoid food allergy reactions can ensure that you enjoy a healthy and festive season.

Preventive medicine is just one aspect of care osteopathic physicians provide. Osteopathic physicians are fully-licensed to prescribe medicine and practice in all specialty areas including surgery. D.O.s are trained to consider the health of the whole person and use their hands to help diagnose and treat their patients.

February 1, 2007
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