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Reactions & Overreaction: The Truth About Food Allergies

The number of people who have food allergies is relatively small, but those conditions are life-threatening, medical experts say. No cure exists, but attention increasingly is paid to treatments that ease the most serious reactions.

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If you don’t have a food allergy, you just don’t understand the obstacles that those who do face daily.” You often hear that sentiment from people who are allergic to food such as milk, eggs, wheat and peanuts, which are U.S. dietary mainstays and difficult to avoid. However, our society is more aware of food allergies than ever before, experts say.

Solutions aren’t easy to come by for the 13.4 million to 15 million U.S. consumers who have a food allergy, according to estimates by federal health agencies and food-allergy researchers, particularly when it comes to finding a cure. However, at least the awareness of food allergies is on the rise. A new federal law enables schools to be better prepared if a child has a serious allergic reaction to a food, and the first national food-allergy guidelines for schools were published. That’s a good start for the estimated 4 percent to 6 percent of children who have a food allergy, says Dr. Wayne Giles, who is the director of Division of Population Health at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Further, advances in research are helping doctors to diagnose and treat patients, and a potential cure for peanut allergy holds promise.

To get a bead on what it’s like to live with food allergies in 2014, we spoke with 14 medical experts, government sources and food-allergy advocates. They tell us that people who have food allergies aren’t as isolated as they used to be.

WARY PUBLIC. You likely have seen headlines about food-allergy reactions that might seem like overreactions, such as peanut-free sections that are established at sports stadiums or schools that ban shared treats that are brought from home. Although the number of people who have a food allergy is small, for those people, it’s a big problem—potentially fatal.

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For some peanut-allergy patients, for example, even touching peanuts or breathing in peanut dust, say, from being near to someone who eats peanuts, might lead to an allergic reaction, according to National Institutes of Health. Severe reactions to this type of exposure are unlikely, experts say. The problem is that food-allergy reactions and their treatments don’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. In other words, a treatment that might be overkill to one person who has a food allergy might be a lifesaver to another. Although allergic reactions to food aren’t always life-threatening, any allergy attack has the potential to be fatal. Medical research and legislative actions react to worst-case scenarios, which are the focus of this report.

Food allergies are estimated to cause about 30,000 episodes of anaphylaxis and 100–200 deaths per year in the United States, according to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Anaphylaxisis a whole-body reaction, which can include a sudden drop in blood pressure and a narrowing of the airways, and it can be fatal. A December 2013 article in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology pegged the fatalities higher, at between 186 and 225 deaths per year. Cases of anaphylaxis in medical settings rose to 25 per 1 million people in 2009 from 21 per 1 million people in 1999, according to the article.

Children can outgrow food allergies, but no way exists to tell whether yours will be among those who are fortunate enough to do so. A study of 40,104 families that was published in July 2013 in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that 26.6 percent of children outgrew their food allergies by an average age of 5 years, 5 months. NIAID says children are more likely to outgrow milk, egg, soy and wheat allergies eventually; peanut and tree-nut allergies are less likely to go away.

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