Food allergies a heightened problem during the holidays
Published: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 5:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 5:08 p.m.
Most people indulge in treats during the holidays, but kids with allergies need to be extra careful about what they are eating as more nuts, shellfish and other common culprits for allergies appear around the home or at parties.
According to a national survey released this week, about 55 percent of children with severe allergies have experienced anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, during a winter holiday event. The rate rises to 70 percent of kids in urban areas. Harris Interactive conducted the survey, which included 300 parents of children with allergies.
Dr. Shih–Wen Huang, a pediatric allergist at the University of Florida and Shands, said doctor and emergency visits tend to increase between Halloween and New Year's.
“Without the food, we probably wouldn't call it the holidays. But the mix of foods increases the chance of anaphylaxis,” Huang said.
Anaphylaxis occurs when the airway closes or blood pressure drops suddenly. It can be fatal without quick treatment.
“If kids have any sweating or itching before the severe form of the reaction, they ought to be examined immediately,” said Huang.
Often allergic reactions are caused by baked goods containing peanuts and tree nuts, which include almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts. Shellfish — which include shrimp, crab, clams, scallops and lobster — also account for many allergic reactions.
“The only way to avoid anaphylaxis is by avoiding exposure to offending foods,” Huang said, adding: “Mistakenly, people think that if you become allergic to something, that it has to be eaten through the mouth. But even contact through the skin of this food, or on the surface of a table where it's been, can cause a reaction.”
Dr. Todd Mahr, chair of the Section of Allergy and Immunology of the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends that parents and kids take preventive measures.
“RSVP ASAP; offer to bring safe food; go over the rules with your children; make sure you have meds with you,” said Mahr. “Not being prepared is really not an option.”
Mahr's son, now 21, has been allergic to peanuts, wheat and eggs since childhood. He grew up bringing his own food to holiday parties.
“We make cheese and meat roll-ups with toothpicks, so he looks like he's getting an appetizer, which is what holiday parties are really about,” Mahr said, adding that this also relieves the party hostess of having to prepare special food for guests with allergies.
Other common recommendations include ensuring the party-throwers know about the kids' allergies and making sure kids have with them at all times their epinephrine, or EpiPen, which quickly helps stop allergic reactions.
But only about half the parents surveyed follow these recommendations, and parents can be especially resistant to using the EpiPen on their children, said Huang, who did a study several years ago and found that about 93 percent of parents didn't use the EpiPen properly.
“We know the parents don't like the needle,” said Huang. “This is an ongoing education process, about when and how to do it to save their kids' lives.”
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