Teens With Food Allergies Take Risks

Survey Shows Many Leave Medications at Home, Eat Potentially Dangerous Foods

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 06, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

March 6, 2006 (Miami Beach) -- Teens with food allergies admit to taking potentially deadly risks with their health, particularly when out with friends, a new survey shows.

Among the risky behaviors: Leaving medication at home when at a school dance or wearing tight clothes, eating foods that could cause a reaction, and failing to tell their pals about their condition, says Scott H. Sicherer, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"Teens and young adults are at high risk for fatal food allergic reactions, so we wanted to find out why and what can be done to help protect them," he says.

"What we found is that the reasons for their risk-taking behaviors tended to vary by social circumstances and perceived risk," he tells WebMD.

Sicherer presented the findings at the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology's annual meeting.

2 Million Kids Have Allergies

Approximately 2 million school-aged children have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. Teens and young adults with peanut or tree-nut allergies and asthma appear to be at greatest risk for severe or life-threatening reactions.

Since there is no cure, strict avoidance of the food in question is the only way to prevent a reaction. But even if a person has a reaction after eating a food he thought was safe, rapid administration of epinephrine can usually save the day.

That's why doctors insist that people with food allergies always carry an EpiPen -- a syringe filled with epinephrine and encased in a self-injecting device that can be used anywhere, says F. Estelle R. Simons, MD. Simons is an allergy specialist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Which Kids Leave Medication at Home?

The new research shows that teens often fail to take their potentially life-saving medication along when engaging in certain activities. While 94% say they carry it when traveling, only 43% bring it along when playing sports. Nearly a third leave it home when attending a school dance or going to a friend's house.

Wearing tight clothes is also a major deterrent, with only about half bringing their epinephrine in these circumstances, Sicherer says.

"Teens have to be consistent in carrying it," he tells WebMD. "If they're wearing tight clothes, they can use a holster; if they're at a sports event, they can put it in their gym bag. Most teens always have their cell phones, so they certainly should be able to take along their medication."

Another risky behavior: tasting foods to see if they really contained the culprit food, he says.

The researchers surveyed 174 participants aged 13 to 21 using a web-based questionnaire. Three-fourths of the participants suffered from peanut allergy and 20% were allergic to milk. A total of 82% reported they had suffered anaphylaxis, a severe life-threatening allergic reaction to the culprit food; 52% had more than three such reactions in their past.

Educating Friends About Allergies

Among the other findings:

  • Three-quarters of teens said they always read food labels to make sure a product doesn't contain the offending food, but 42% admitted they would eat a food even if the label showed it "may contain" an allergen.
  • The 29 participants considered as "high risk" because they do not always carry epinephrine and ate foods that "may contain" allergens tended to be less concerned with their allergy, have more recent reactions, and feel "different" because of their allergy, compared with the other participants.
  • Sixty percent of participants told their pals they suffered from food allergy and 68% thought that educating their friends would make living with the condition easier. Of those who don't tell their friends, 60% wish the schools would do it.

"Most wanted their friends to know that they have a food allergy and about food allergies in general," Sicherer says. "They just don't want to have to be the one to tell their friends. They want someone else to educate them."

Suzanne S. Teuber, MD, a food allergy expert at the University of California at Davis, says the results are consistent with what she sees in her practice.

"The key is education," she tells WebMD. "We really need to keep making people with food allergies aware of all the situations in which they can eat foods that can cause reactions and how important it is to always have their medication."

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology 2006 Annual Meeting, Miami Beach, Fla., March 3-7, 2006. Scott H. Sicherer, MD, associate professor of pediatrics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City. F. Estelle R. Simons, MD, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada; president, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Suzanne S. Teuber, MD, associate professor of medicine, University of California at Davis. News release, Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

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