Food Allergies: Putting Risks Into Perspective

Allergic Reaction - Illustration

Anaphylaxis is the worst nightmare of a parent whose child suffers from food allergies. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening reaction to an allergen, such as a bee sting or a certain food. When anaphylaxis occurs, several body functions are affected simultaneously and the following symptoms can result:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives
  • Swollen lips or tongue
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure—causing weak pulse, confusion or loss of consciousness

But epinephrine can reverse symptoms of severe anaphylaxis. It is a highly effective medication that must be given quickly to be the most effective, and it is the first line of treatment for anaphylaxis. Treatment with epinephrine must occur immediately to reverse or reduce symptoms and to prevent death, which can occur within an hour.

The Statistics Can Be Alarming

Reactions to various allergens in food cause approximately 30,000 cases of anaphylaxis, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths each year, with the highest rate of death from food-related anaphylaxis (4.25 for every million people) in individuals with peanut allergies. Anaphylaxis can be unpredictable. For instance, a child who previously had only mild reactions could have a life-threatening reaction at the next exposure, whereas a child with a history of serious reactions may have a mild one. Additionally, children at highest risk also appear to suffer from asthma, which may delay the administration of epinephrine.

Over the last few years, approximately 25 percent of anaphylaxis events in schools involved children whose food allergy was undiagnosed. Many of the fatalities from anaphylaxis were primarily due to delays in administering epinephrine.

With statistics like these, it’s no wonder parents are frightened. Anaphylaxis is serious business. But should it be the focus of your allergy management plan to keep your child safe from everyday dangers?

The Risk of Anaphylaxis Versus Other Safety Risks

A review published in a 2013 edition of Clinical & Experimental Allergy suggested that the risk of death attributable to a food allergy-related cause is fairly low when compared to the risk of death attributed to “common accidents.”

Although unintentional injuries or accidents are the fifth most common cause of death for the general population, in teenagers and all children over the age of 1, accidents are the single most frequent cause of death. The most likely fatal accidents among children between the ages of 1 and 4 do not include anaphylaxis, but rather drowning, motor vehicle crashes, fire-related burns, suffocation and accidental poisoning.

Altogether, the accidental death rate among all Americans age 19 or younger is roughly 34 times higher than the death rate for food-related anaphylaxis in the same age group.

When looking at the overall health risks to children, parents of kids affected by serious or severe food allergies may sometimes focus on the relatively small chances of dying from anaphylaxis. This means that they may inadvertently lower their focus on their kids’ risks for exposure to potentially fatal accidents, which are far more likely to occur. The review’s authors recommend a balanced approach that recognizes the real risks for children with identified or unidentified severe food allergies, but that also puts those risks into perspective among the other dangers faced by teenagers and young children.

What’s the bottom line? While the risk of an anaphylaxis event may be the driving force behind your allergy management, it should not necessarily be the focus. Focusing on day-to-day best practices for food and general child safety should likely be at the core of your plan.


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