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August 6, 2007

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.

Living with dangerous food allergies: A safe place to learn the boundaries

Innovative U-M clinic and challenge kitchen help kids with food allergies

ANN ARBOR, MI – Mealtime should be an enjoyable experience. Yet, for 12 million children with food allergies, eating a meal can be a frightening activity. For some of these children, even the slightest exposure to the wrong food can be deadly.

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Heidi Roehrig is the mother of a 4-year old boy* with nut allergies. A year ago, her son had a severe allergic reaction after eating trail mix with nuts.

“Our life has changed incredibly. Suddenly we’re afraid of play dates and birthdays. These should be fun – you want them to be fun for your child – but we’re fearful of not being able to control all the foods,” says Roehrig.

In the Roehrig family, simple summer pleasures like going to the ice cream parlor don’t take place anymore. Too many of the ice creams contain nuts, and the family has no way of knowing if surfaces and tools have been cleaned correctly.

“There are lots of things that just aren’t enjoyable anymore because we can’t feel confident that our son isn’t going to have a reaction. Even grocery shopping is a huge ordeal – you have to read the label on everything, including foods you buy every week, because you never know when it’s going to change,” she says.

The impact of food allergies on the family is tremendous. For the families of children who have developed severe food allergies, it alters every aspect of life, whether it’s babysitters, daycare, visiting family and friends, even going to the doctor’s office.

The process of diagnosing food allergies, though welcome, also poses its own problems. Testing children with serious food allergies can be an extremely stressful and even dangerous situation. These concerns have prompted the University of Michigan Health System to create an innovative Food Allergy Clinic that offers families a safe and relaxing facility to test or challenge for food allergies. It was designed specifically to provide a safe environment for allergy experts to evaluate and treat patients with food allergies.

“We have built a controlled area where children can come to be evaluated and diagnosed. The resulting data allow us to develop what we call a ‘challenge.’ In most of our challenges, we introduce a food that we believe can be tolerated now that the child is older. We can also do airborne challenges to see if a child will have an allergic reaction to a smell, such as to peanuts,” explains Marc McMorris, M.D., medical director of the clinic and clinical associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics.

Health Minute ImageBecause some food allergies, including the smells, can be dangerous or life-threatening, the clinic’s design controls airflow from room to room, allowing several patients to be seen and evaluated at the same time.

“We also have more control over preparing the foods – that is essential when it comes to certain types of foods, or developing challenges where we want to be able to hide the food in certain other kinds of food and feed it to the patient without them knowing they’re getting it,” says McMorris.

Allergy facts
An allergen is any substance that causes an allergic reaction. Having a food allergy means your body’s immune system mistakenly believes the food is harmful.

Food allergies can be more severe than airborne allergies because the food is ingested and then absorbed throughout the body. Airborne allergies are filtered by the eyes or nose, so they don’t enter the body’s system so completely.

The number of people with food allergies is increasing. Experts believe the number has doubled in the past 10 years. There are about 12 million Americans with food allergies, and as many as five to 8 percent of children under age 3 have food allergies.

There are several theories about why the number of people with allergies is increasing:

  • Experts believe this may be due to the way we process our foods. For example, in the United States, peanuts are dry roasted. This makes the compound found in peanuts that triggers an allergic reaction more easily exposed to the immune system.
  • Some experts say American children are so well-protected from infection that the immune system, not needing to work as hard to fight infections, switches its focus to allergens, the foreign substances the body attacks in an allergic reaction.
  • Heredity might play a role, too. If your parents are allergic, then you’re more likely to have allergies. If one parent has allergies, as many as 50 percent of their children also will have allergies. If both parents have allergies, there’s as much as a 70 to 80 percent risk that  their children will develop allergies of some sort.

What to watch for
The top high-risk foods in this country are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and, recently, sesame seeds.

Food allergies can be life threatening. Reactions range from a few hives to a mild skin reaction to a life-threatening severe reaction.

For more information, visit these Web sites:

University of Michigan Health System Food Allergy Service

UMHS Health Topics A-Z: Adults and food allergies

UMHS Health Topics A-Z: Food allergy testing

UMHS press release: Peanuts, bee stings and fear

UMHS press release: New food allergy clinic opens

KidsHealth: Food Allergies

Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network: Common food allergens

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease

*At the mother’s request, her son’s name has been withheld.

Written by Mary Beth Reilly

 

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