While food allergies can trigger an array of unpleasant but non-life-threatening symptoms, their chief threat to human health lies in their ability to produce the severe form of allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Because of the potentially lethal outcome of this reaction, parents of children with serious food allergies sometimes focus on preventing anaphylaxis while giving much less consideration to other health threats. However, a recent study review published in November 2013 in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy, indicates that the risks for dying from food allergy-related causes are quite low when compared to the risks for dying from common accidents.
Anaphylaxis occurs when a child or adult develops an unusually severe immune system response to certain foods, medications or drugs, or the stings or bites of an insect. Some people experience a reaction that strongly resembles anaphylaxis when they first become exposed to an allergen. However, true anaphylaxis only occurs when a person gets re-exposed to an allergen at some later point in time. Unlike localized allergic reactions that only affect isolated parts of the body, anaphylaxis affects the entire body all at once. Common, rapidly developing symptoms of the condition include breathing and swallowing problems, hives, abnormal chest tightness, wheezing or other strange breathing sounds, slurring of words, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pain in the abdomen, a confused or anxious mental state and loss of consciousness. Potential causes of death in a person experiencing untreated anaphylaxis include blocked airways, shock and stoppage of the heart or lungs.
Significant numbers of people do die from food allergy-related anaphylaxis every year. According to the information gathered from the 13 studies and reports included in the Clinical & Experimental Allergy review, the annual rate for this type of death among all adults and children is 1.81 for every million people. In the U.S., this would translate to roughly 568 deaths every year. When children and teenagers age 18 or younger are considered separately, the rate rises to 3.25 for every million people. The highest rate of death from food-related anaphylaxis (4.25 for every million people) occurs in individuals with peanut allergies.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track the most common causes of death for people of various ages. The latest available figures show that accidents (also known as unintentional injuries) are the fifth most common cause of death for the general population. However, in teenagers and all children over the age of one, accidents are the single most frequent cause of death. The most likely fatal accidents among children between the ages of one and four include drowning, motor vehicle crashes, fire-related burns and suffocation. The same types of accidents are also common causes of death for older children and teenagers age 14 or younger. The most likely fatal accidents among older teenagers include drowning, motor vehicle crashes and unintended poisoning. Altogether, the accidental death rate among all Americans age 19 or younger is about 110 per million, roughly 34 times higher than the death rate for food-related anaphylaxis in the same age group.
Putting Things Into Perspective
The authors of the review published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy don’t want to downplay the risks associated with food allergies and anaphylaxis. Obviously, even one food allergy-related death is one too many, especially since this type of extreme outcome is usually avoidable. However, they note, when looking at the overall health risks to children, parents of kids affected by serious or severe food allergies may sometimes place too much emphasis on the relatively small chances of dying from anaphylaxis. This means that they may inadvertently place too little emphasis on lowering 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 puts those risks in perspective among the other dangers faced by teenagers and younger kids.