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No easy answers for understanding why food allergies seem to be up in numbers, intensity

Medical mystery?

Food allergies apparently are becoming increasingly common and more severe. In some cases, these allergies can be life threatening.

“The last conference I went to, they told us that 20% of the population is more allergic than they were in 1980,” said Blair Patterson, R.N., allergy coordinator for Ear Nose and Throat Physicians of North Mississippi, Nettleton. “They don’t really know what causes food allergies. It is unexplained. No one understands why there are more allergies now. Some people who are severely allergic to food, particularly peanuts, can have anaphylactic shock where their throat swells up and they have difficulty breathing.”

People who have a severe anaphylactic reaction or show strong allergies in testing can get a prescription for an epi-pen, which provides an injection of epinephrine that opens airways so people can breathe.

You can develop food allergies or any type of allergy at any time. The most common foods to cause problems are corn, eggs, milk, wheat, soybeans, beef, potatoes and peanuts.

Food allergy patients aren’t treated with injections such as those used to reduce allergic reactions to things like dust mites and pollen. Instead, patients are put on an elimination diet.

“They have to avoid the food for so many months and then can usually slowly re-introduce it into the diet,” Patterson said. “As long as it is not a severe allergy, they should be able to re-introduce it after a period of avoidance. But if it is a strong allergy when we do our test, they have to avoid it life long.”

Symptoms of food allergies can be an itching or swollen throat or tongue and a rash that can cover the entire body. When people learn what foods to avoid, the symptoms go away.

One can inherit the tendency to be allergic. But Patterson said just because parents have allergies, it doesn’t mean a child will be allergic.

Tough to avoid

Avoiding the food causing the problem can be difficult. For example, if you are allergic to soy, you might have to avoid eating hamburgers at restaurants because some hamburgers have soy additives.

Allergies can lead to job losses for some people working in the food industry.

“We have seen some people so severely allergic they don’t even have to ingest the food,” Patterson said. “They get swelling or rashes just from the fumes of the food. They stay broken out just from being around the food. So they have to seek other jobs not in the food industry.”

Dr. Todd Atkins, a physician with the Mississippi Asthma & Allergy Clinic, P.A., Jackson, said food allergies aren’t completely understood. It isn’t even certain that the incidence of food allergies has increased dramatically.

“There is a general perception that food allergies have increased, but some people think it is we are more aware of food allergies than we used to be,” Atkins said. “Doctors are more astute in diagnosing it. That said, I think the actual numbers are probably increasing somewhat.”

Typical true food allergic reactions are symptoms like hives, facial or hand swelling and wheezing usually occur immediately after ingestion of food. However, Atkins said doctors also pay more attention to people with other conditions like eczema, which food allergies might aggravate.

“In those patients, if we can identify what they are allergic to, they can avoid it and improve their eczema, as well,” Atkins.

Think you’re allergic?

If one suspects a food allergy, a specialist should be seen. Sometimes people can have reactions that seem to be food allergies and aren’t.

“See an allergy specialist to confirm the food allergy,” Atkins said. “Sometimes people will lose allergy sensitivity if many years have passed in the interim. Some allergies people don’t seem to lose. Peanuts or nut allergies in general, or shellfish, seem to be particularly long lasting.”

People with food allergies don’t usually need to avoid eating out. But Atkins said it is important for people to notify a restaurant of the food allergies so appropriate precautions can be taken.

“My biggest advice to restaurants is to listen to what the customer tells them when they say they are allergic to foods,” Atkins said.

Industry on alert

Mississippi restaurants are very well aware of the issues surrounding food allergies, said Mike Cashion, executive director, Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association (MHRA).

“The MHRA has conducted numerous training sessions throughout the state on proper systems and methods for insuring the health safety of those with food allergies,” Cashion said. “As accurate communication between our guests and managers is essential, we have created a link on our Web site that goes directly to the Food Allergy Buddy Web site, www.foodallergybuddy.com/.”

The MHRA also has a downloadable poster that can be posted in restaurants that informs employees of their responsibility to take food allergy requests and questions seriously. It lists the most common food allergens, and recommends the following four “R’s” when a guest has a food allergy:

• Refer the food allergy concern to the chef or manager.

• Review the food allergy with the guest and check ingredient labels.

• Remember to check the prep procedure for potential cross-contact.

• Respond to the guest and inform them on how their concern will be addressed.

MHRA recently announced collaboration with the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and Phil Lempert, NBC’s “Today Show” food editor, to promote the Food Allergy Buddy (FAB) Dining Card program. The card helps customers to easily communicate any specific food allergies to restaurant staff. The FAB Dining Card is available free online at www.foodallergybuddy.com/. With a few clicks of the mouse, customers can print out personalized cards that can be presented to a restaurant’s staff detailing specific ingredients or foods to which they are allergic so the restaurant can alter recipes accordingly.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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