Experts address food allergy shaming and bullying

peanuts in & out of shell_resizedBased on recent reports, Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) estimates that 15 million Americans have food allergies and that severe allergic reactions account for more than 200,000 emergency room visits each year. To go along with this, more than 17 million Europeans have a food allergy, and hospital admissions for severe reactions in children have risen seven-fold over the past decade in Europe alone.

While researchers are trying to discover why food allergies are on the rise and potential ways a food allergy could be cured, there are still no clear answers. Strict avoidance and early recognition of foods that cause allergic reactions are the most important factors health professionals recommend today, as well as knowing what to do when a server reaction takes place.

In the most severe reactions, anaphylaxis occurs, which threatens the breathing and blood circulation of the individual experiencing the allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis can set in within just minutes after an allergic substance is consumed or encountered and although uncommon, can lead to death rapidly.

However, because there is still much to be discovered about food allergies and because there is a wide range in the severity of an allergic reaction, many do not understand how life threatening they can be. A recent article even argues that the “trendiness” of food sensitivities could be a detriment to people with true, life-threatening food allergies.

This, in fact, was the case in the death of a 19-year-old college sophomore from Michigan, who had a severe peanut allergy and died after visiting a friend’s apartment where peanut butter cookies were baked. According to the article, despite injecting himself with an EpiPen and driving himself to the hospital, the teenager went into anaphylactic shock and experienced an asthma attack and cardiac arrest and never recovered.

An article from the Oakland Press states that the teen was diagnosed with a level 6 nut allergy (the most severe form of an allergy) at the age of two and was bullied by his peers and their parents throughout his childhood. Known as “allergy shaming,” the student’s mother told the newspaper that he was often called names and it wasn’t until he went to college that he was not longer labeled.

“Many people believe (allergies) are overdiagnosed. They don’t understand the seriousness of it. They also don’t understand the level of exposure needed to have to have a reaction,” Dr. Chad W. Mayer of the Allergy & Asthma Institute of Southeast Michigan, said to The Oakland Press. He also went on to say that many also do not understand that even just a trace amount or inhaling the food can set off a life-threatening reaction.

But most teenagers just want to fit in and that makes them less likely to tell people they’re experiencing symptoms or ask questions about foods that may be unsafe, Scott H. Sicherer, MD, professor of pediatrics and a researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told Yahoo Health.

Sicherer has conducted research on this topic which shows that fatal food-allergic reactions are the most common among adolescents and young adults. His study revealed that 54% of students surveyed said they purposefully ingested a potentially unsafe food, while 42% were willing to eat a food labeled that it “may contain” the problematic allergen. A 2009 study found that only 40% of college undergrads with food allergies avoided their known allergens.

“They would rather make believe that they don’t have it,” Myron Zitt, MD, a practicing allergist and past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, is quoted as saying in the article. “It makes them appear different from everyone else… they may think they’re immortal or that they’ve outgrown it, but with regard to nuts and shellfish allergies, you don’t outgrow it.”

Also, another study of 251 families found that 32% of surveyed children said they’d been bullied because of their food allergy at least once. Previous research shows that bullying puts kids at risk for anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. Understandably, compared with non-bullied children, bullied food-allergic children report higher anxiety levels and a lower quality of life.

Throughout these studies Sicherer found that education is the key when it comes to food allergies. When he asked teenagers what would make living with food allergies better for them, the teens didn’t ask for a nut-free place to eat in the school cafeteria or special treatment. Instead, nearly 70% said that educating their friends would make living with a food allergy easier.

“They wanted someone to teach their peers,” Sicherer said in the article. “They don’t want to be different. If other kids understand what it is, they feel less different. If your friends know and understand your food allergy, it goes from embarrassment or danger to understanding.”

For more information on food allergies, click here.

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