Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Allergies on the Rise for Children

(MS) - The birthday pizza party. School bake sales. PB&J sandwiches in the lunchroom. Halloween candy. Navigating a child's world when food allergies are present can be challenging to say the least. But for the millions with allergies, it's an absolute must to be resolute and avoid potential food triggers.

If your child is allergic to nuts, dairy, or shellfish, to name a few foods, he or she is sharing company with about 11 million other people in the U.S. alone. About six percent of children in Quebec have food allergies.

In the past, food allergies were not much of a concern to the medical community. Today, scientists generally agree that food allergies are a force to be reckoned with - and the numbers of those with allergies are growing. In response, parents, children, and schools are taking measures to make sure children with allergies are safe from attacks that can be as mild as rashes or irritation or as severe as anaphylactic shock. Peanut- or milk-free zones are set up in lunch rooms, and many food manufacturers are now required to list the eight most common allergies on their food labels. Because allergies can even be triggered from just inhaling foods, including "peanut fumes," many airlines and classrooms actually ban foods containing nuts or require they be stored under special lock and key - away from allergic children.

Peanut allergies and allergies from other tree nuts, including almonds and pecans, are among the most dire. Reports indicate that peanut allergies have doubled in children under 5 between the years of 1997 and 2002. Even trace amounts of peanuts can cause severe allergic reactions. In 2005, 15-year-old Christina Desforges from Canada died a few days after kissing her boyfriend who had just eaten peanut butter. People with severe allergies, such as those to peanuts, often carry around EpiPens, emergency devices that can deliver a dose of epinephrine in the case of a severe reaction.

Why do Allergies Happen?

Scientists have a basic understanding of how allergies work, but they don't have complete control over why the body's immune system reacts to something that should normally be benign when ingested . food.

With an allergy, the immune system mistakes food as a harmful substance. White blood cells are discharged to produce antibodies against the allergen. These antibodies attach to "mast" cells, which are found in the skin, nose, lungs, intestines, stomach, and mouth. When an allergen subsequently enters the body, the mast cells are ready and respond with a chemical called "histamine." This produces the telltale allergic symptoms of itchiness, sneezing, stomach cramping, and swelling, among others.

What Causes Allergies?

There is no concrete reason why allergies occur in some and not others. Many believe allergies run in families. New research into allergies has unearthed an interesting hypothesis: that oversterilization of a child's environment is related to development of allergies. It seems instead of just an apple a day to keep the doctor away, children should regularly be exposed to dirt and animals.

Studies have shown that kids who grow up on farms around animals and dirt have fewer allergies than those who are sheltered from these conditions. The hypothesis has even been studied among lab rats. Those in a wild habitat exhibit far fewer allergies than rats kept in a laboratory. The line of thinking is that in the "wild" the body learns to judge what invaders are truly malevolent, such as a severe parasite, rather than something innocuous like a grain of pollen.

Allergy Treatment

Up until recently, there was no cure or treatment for allergies - people simply avoided triggers or took products to alleviate mild symptoms. But scientists are looking at other options. Using the problem foods themselves in extremely small doses, experiments are under way to see if an allergic individual can gradually build up a tolerance to foods they normally would be allergic to. While this doesn't mean they'll be able to indulge in a peanut butter cup if they have a peanut allergy, it may save them a trip to the hospital if they accidentally bite into a trace amount of peanuts.

Leading a "normal" life is generally the goal for allergic children and families, who want to have their eggs, fish, peanuts - whatever - and enjoy them, too.

CAPTION: A peanut butter sandwich may prove deadly for the 1.8 million Americans allergic to peanuts and other tree nuts.


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