High Stakes on the Menu

Raising awareness of the growing problem of food allergies

With all the focus on food allergies lately—from peanut-free plane rides to shoveling through an endless array of gluten-free products to find the Wonder Bread—eyes are bound to roll. However, there is plenty of evidence that the epidemic is very real.

“Three years ago, a 17-year-old boy was referred to me after being treated in the emergency room after suffering from a severe anaphylactic allergic reaction,” says allergy and asthma specialist, Dr. Victor E. Cohen (4445 S. Eastern Ave.). “The patient explained that he had erupted in hives and experienced nausea and vomiting and was administered a shot of epinephrine. We ran a series of tests, and after interpreting the results, determined the cause of the reaction was shrimp and advised the patient to never eat shrimp again.”

A year later, Cohen received a call that his patient had died.

“The young man I treated had decided that it had been years since his attack and that maybe he was over the allergy,” Cohen says. “He ate shrimp, and the allergic reaction took his life.”

On Sept. 25, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) will hold a walk at Green Valley Ranch Resort to raise awareness of a problem that, when undetected or ignored, can cost lives.

A real problem

As the mother of a child who suffers from severe food allergies, Kristy Littauer, volunteer publicity director for FAAN, hopes the walk will help generate support for government research that could lead to a cure.

“Giving your child a chocolate-chip cookie or stopping after dinner for an ice cream should be fun,” she says. “But for my son, these things that most people take for granted, could cost him his life.”

Littauer’s son almost died from a severe anaphylactic reaction while the family was dining at a local restaurant.

“My son wanted ice cream; we saw on the menu that they had sorbet,” Littauer says. “I asked the waitress if it was dairy-free and explained that this is extremely important and to serve it with a clean spoon.” After three spoonfuls of this “dairy-free” dessert, Littauer’s son was mouthing “mommy” and unable to breathe. She administered epinephrine right at the table. “He was almost lifeless, and as a mother, you are frantically trying to keep it together and get your child immediate medical attention.”

That night Littauer and her family spent 25 hours in a pediatric ICU until her son made a full recovery.

A growing concern

An estimated 12 million Americans (1 in 25) suffer from food allergies for which there is no known cure, according to FAAN. A research project conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an 18 percent increase in food allergies from 1997-2007.

“We don’t know why there has been such an increase in food allergies and food-allergy-related death over the last several years,” Littauer says.

The answers will only come with more research. FAAN’s flagship fundraising event, Walk for Food Allergy: Moving Toward a Cure, raised $2.3 million in 26 cities in 2008 for research and education programs. “The FAAN walk is so important and raises awareness in our community and schools about the importance of funding so we can find a cure,” Littauer says.

Events such as the FAAN walk also help dispel misconceptions surrounding food-allergy awareness, testing and how patients can get a clear and concise diagnosis.

“Patients and parents of patients with food allergies want others to become more aware,” Cohen says. “With the help of organizations like FAAN, those who are unfamiliar with the issues surrounding food allergies may take an interest in what these patients are struggling with.”

The challenge of diagnosis

One of the problems that plagues those who suffer from food allergies is knowing a correct diagnosis when they hear it.

“There is another patient of mine, in her 30s, on a ‘laundry list’ of medications that she had been taking for 15 years,” Cohen says. “She came to me after being diagnosed by her primary doctor with ulcerative colitis. After reviewing her history and performing certain tests it was discovered to be gluten sensitivity causing her condition. We treated her and discussed nutritional changes and now she is drug-free.”

Food-allergy awareness begins with knowing your family history and by examining your diet and getting the proper testing. If family members have had moderate to severe allergic reactions to certain foods, says Cohen, there is a chance the sensitivity will pass to other family members.

“In our office we treat quite a few children and some adults who suffer from food allergies,” says Cohen’s medical assistant, Roxanne Villarreal. “The most common food allergy we see is from patients who have eaten something containing gluten, milk or peanuts, although we have seen reactions to almost every food out there.”

Signs of a food allergy can vary from a small itch to a full-blown allergic episode. The more serious signs include hives, stomach pains, cramping and vomiting. For those who have noticed any signs of a food allergy, Cohen says, proper testing is essential.

“Blood testing for food allergies is often inaccurate and can lead to a patient being misdiagnosed or advised to restrict their diet, which in some cases, leads to nutritional deficiencies,” Cohen says.

Once a patient is diagnosed with a severe case of food allergy, the keys are caution and discipline—and never to think about tempting the food fates again.

Food-Allergy Facts

Common foods that cause allergic reactions: Eight foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergy reactions in the U.S.: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (e.g., walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans), wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.

One thing you never want to experience: Anaphylactic shock is a severe allergic reaction that can cause swelling of the lips, tongue or esophagus, hives, and difficulty breathing.

How to get tested: To learn more about food allergies, seek out local physicians who specialize in food and airborne allergy testing and treatments. Groups such as FAAN, the National institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health and the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology are just a few of the resources available for more information about keeping what you eat fear-free. On the Web, see FoodAllergy.org.

FAAN walk details: Check-in begins at 9 a.m. Sept. 25; the two-mile walk begins at 10 a.m. at The District in Green Valley Ranch, at Interstate 215 and Green Valley Parkway, Henderson. Visit FoodAllergyWalk.org for more information.

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