Healthy Living: Allergic Reaction
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A mother never forgets the first time.
“We discovered Savannah’s allergy when she was just about 2. She took a bite of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and within minutes began to have a reaction,” remembers Kimberly Mather of Newtown. “She immediately hived, her face swelled, her eyes swelled nearly shut and her ears became so swollen that parts of her outer ear were purple.”
Luckily, Mather had heeded the advice of her pediatrician—Savannah has two older brothers—and kept Benadryl in the medicine cabinet. “I gave her a dose of Benadryl, called the pediatrician and then, as she was getting worse, called 911,” she says.
“At the ER the doctors monitored her vitals and we stayed there for four hours until she stabilized. We received a prescription for an Epi-pen and instructions to continue to give her Benadryl at regular intervals. We then followed up the next day with an allergist and her pediatrician.”
Now 11, Savannah has managed her allergy well. It has meant careful oversight of her diet (and of family menus) for her mother, but they know they’re not alone. While peanut allergies were scarcely heard of 20 years ago, today Savannah is in good company—witness the advent of the “peanut-free” table in school lunchrooms across the country.
“Food allergies have more than doubled in the last 20 to 30 years,” according to Dr. Kelly Stone, a specialist in the allergic diseases lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Md. And the jump in food-allergy cases among U.S. schoolchildren—18 percent over the last 15 years—has been especially significant, according to Dr. Jeffrey Factor of the New England Food Allergy Treatment Center in West Hartford. “We also know that in recent years, food allergies have become the most common cause of the most severe allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis [an acute response that can lead to difficulty breathing, shock and even death], that present to emergency departments today, surpassing reactions from medications and insect stings,” says Factor. “Life-threatening reactions to peanuts and tree nuts are more common than in the past.”
While reactions to a wide array of offending foods—from peanuts, wheat and soy to milk and eggs—have seen the most notable increases, nasal allergies to everyday agents such as dust mites, animal dander and pollen are up as well, according to studies by the National Center for Health Statistics. An allergy is defined as an overreaction of the human immune system to a foreign substance, commonly known as an allergen, which can be eaten, breathed, injected or touched. Allergic reactions include, but are not limited to, coughing, sneezing and itchy eyes, rashes, hives and difficulty breathing.
Why the spike in kids’ allergies? “Some say there is merely a greater awareness—which there is,” says Stone of the NIAID, “but it’s more than that.”
Many point to the so-called “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that our immune systems have actually been compromised in recent years by too much cleanliness.
Dr. Jeffrey Miller, an allergist in Newtown, explains: “Today, increased sanitation has been of clear benefit in decreasing infectious disease, but there is reason to think that it has led to an increase in allergy. The immune system evolved in a world where there was constant exposure to infectious agents, and such exposure seems to be a requirement for the normal development of the immune system. In its absence, the immune system takes a wrong turn, and directs itself against otherwise harmless materials—allergens.”
In short, many believe that decreased exposure to infectious agents has put our bodies on the attack; formerly benign foods, pollens and animal dander have become the enemy.
Exposure to environmental pollutants is a factor as well; for example, says Stone, “There are more allergies found in developed countries than in developing countries.”
A recent study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) found that allergic rhinitis (AR), better known as hay fever, affects 40 percent of children in the U.S. Although “the environmental factors associated with the development of AR are not well understood,” according to the study, “children living near high-traffic areas experience higher symptoms of the disease.” While air pollution can aggravate existing allergies, the true cause of increased cases is not yet known. “That’s the honest answer,” says Stone.