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How Common Are Severe Food Allergies?

Study Shows Life-Threatening Reactions Account for 1 of Every 100 ER Visits
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 6, 2006 (Miami Beach, Fla.) -- Life-threatening allergic reactions to peanuts, seafood, and other foods are much more common than previously recognized, accounting for more than 1 million visits to emergency rooms each year, a new study shows.

"This represents about 1 in every 100 emergency room visits," says researcher Carlos Camargo, MD, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School.

Camargo presented his study on anaphylaxis, a severe life-threatening allergic reaction to food, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Many ER doctors not only fail to recognize anaphylaxis for what it is, but then they fail to treat it, he says.

Only about half of patients suffering anaphylaxis who came to the emergency room received epinephrine, a standard medication used to treat allergic reactions, Camargo tells WebMD. Yet about one-fourth of patients had symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization, he says.

Not Just Children

Camargo and colleagues used data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey to study ER trends in treating people with severe food allergies.

Among the other findings:

  • Two-thirds of people seeking emergency room care for severe allergies were women, and their average age was 35. "This older age was surprising," Camargo says, "as we often think of food allergies as a children's condition."
  • 11% of the people arrived by ambulance.
  • When making out the charts, ER doctors wrote down that only 1% of the people with severe food allergies were actually suffering from anaphylaxis. "This is very different from our experience, where we found that 30% to 50% of acute allergic reactions in the emergency room are anaphylaxis," he says.

Better Diagnosis Needed

The problem, Camargo says, is that a better definition of anaphylaxis is needed. While many people think that anaphylaxis requires that the victim is in shock, this just isn't so, he says. "A person doesn't have to have falling blood pressure or be in shock before a diagnosis is made. Any multisystem allergic reaction with symptoms such as shortness of breath, rash, or vomiting is anaphylaxis."

F. Estelle R. Simons, MD, an allergy specialist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, agrees. "Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that is sudden in onset. There may be a rash on the skin, trouble swallowing, trouble breathing, and more. If you wait until a person is in shock, you have missed the opportunity to save a life," she tells WebMD.

Simons says that people with food allergies need to get more aggressive about managing their own disease.

Every person with food allergies should carry either a Twinject or EpiPen autoinjector -- a syringe filled with epinephrine and encased in a self-injecting device that can be used anywhere, anytime, she says.

"You should take epinephrine at the first sign of an allergic reaction," Simons says. "First, epinephrine, then call 911. Better safe than sorry."

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