Becki Warden's sudden death from a food allergy Saturday may ultimately save other lives as public awareness of allergies grows.
Warden, 16, Orem, died Saturday after eating a candy bar that probably contained a small amount of a substance she was allergic to, most likely nuts. Fortunately, her degree of sensitivity to food was rare.Dr. Edwin Bronsky, an allergist immunologist and researcher at the Intermountain Allergy and Asthma Clinic in Salt Lake City, estimates that 0.5 percent to 4 percent of people with allergies are allergic to food. That means about 250,000 to 1.5 million people nationwide have food allergies.
Foods that commonly provoke an allergic reaction are: peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, wheat, soy products and eggs.
Food allergies are usually genetically determined, Bronsky said. A protein substance in the food triggers a person's body to make antibodies against the protein. The next time the food is consumed, the body unleashes a series of events in an attempt to protect the system against the perceived threat.
Some people are so sensitive to certain foods that even the odor of the food can trigger a reaction.
People can develop a food allergy at any age, but they typically are manifested in early childhood. A food allergy can show up after several exposures to a food or after hundreds of exposures, Bronsky said.
"There is a tendency for children in a very great part to outgrow a food allergy after a couple of years," Bronsky said. Adults are more likely to develop allergies to fish, shellfish and nuts.
Some allergic reactions develop over time; others are immediate.
"The most common types of allergic reactions are those that will develop slowly over a period of time," Bronsky said.
Those reactions include a stuffy nose, asthma, hives, swelling of various body parts and eczema.
It can take days or months to develop slow-reaction symptoms, Bronsky said.
"A mother feeds a 9-month-old eggs for the first time and weeks later notices the creases of his arms and legs getting red and that he's developing eczema."
A peculiar and dangerous form of food allergy is the allergic reaction that occurs very suddenly, very rapidly and very massively, Bronsky said. That's anaphylaxis.
In anaphylaxis, a series of bodily reactions occurs. The most serious are difficulty breathing, caused by tissue swelling, and shock caused by rapidly dilating blood vessels. The person may break out in hives, feel flushed, faint or begin to sweat.
"This entire series of events may incur from the ingestion of the most minute amount of food if the (person) is extremely sensitive to it," Bronsky said.
It takes just seconds for an extremely sensitive person to begin the symptoms that lead to anaphylactic shock. The whole sequence of events can take place in as few as 15 seconds or as long as several hours.
Anaphylactic shock is treated with a shot of adrenalin; the treatment is not always successful.
People with severe food allergies should carry an adrenalin kit with them everywhere, Bronsky said, and know how to give themselves an injection.
"Recognizing the severity of food allergies is the ultimate treatment. Recognizing the danger and recognizing the foods that cause it," Bronsky said. "The ultimate is avoidance of those foods under all circumstances."
When food is poison
- Up to 4 percent of people with allergies have a food allergy.
- Milk is the most common cause of food allergies in children. Other foods that commonly cause an allergy are eggs, wheat, peanuts, soy and tree nuts. Peanuts, nuts, fish and shellfish commonly cause the most severe reactions.
- As little as 1/5,000 of a teaspoon of a peanut can cause a fatal reaction in severely allergic individuals. Even the odor of the food can trigger a reaction.
- Severely allergic children can have a local reaction if milk is splashed on their skin.
- Being kissed by someone who has eaten peanuts can cause a reaction in a severely allergic person.
- Symptoms can begin within minutes to hours after ingesting the food.
- Symptoms include: vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, hives, swelling, eczema, itching or swelling of the lips, tongue or mouth, itching or tightness in the throat, difficult breathing and wheezing.
- Anaphylaxis is the most serious type of reaction and requires immediate attention to prevent death.
- There is no cure for food allergies. Strict avoidance of a problem food is the only way to prevent a reaction.
Let teachers know about a child's allergies
For parents of children with food allergies, sending a child to school for the first time can heighten fears about their child's safety. The Food Allergy Network suggests parents:
- Teach their children what foods cause a reaction and the importance of avoiding them. Role play situations that may come up to help a child feel comfortable avoiding temptation or peer pressure.
- Meet with the child's teachers, school administrator, counselor, nurse, cafeteria personnel and office staff. Explain what foods cause a reaction, precautions, emergency procedures, how to read a label and lunch time considerations.
- If medication is needed to control allergic reactions, be sure the school team knows how and when to administer it. Tell your child where medications are stored at school.
- Review plans for activities that may involve food with the teacher on a monthly basis so you can plan to provide food for your child. The Food Allergy Network is a nonprofit organization. Its address is 4744 Holly Ave., Fairfax, VA 22030.