According to Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic, a food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein. The body creates antibodies that bind to the protein of a food that one is allergic to. If an offending food is ingested, it could trigger the antibodies to bind to the protein, releasing chemicals which result in an allergic reaction. Symptoms range from itching and rashes to trouble breathing, loss of consciousness and death.
Dr. Stanley Fineman sees patients at the clinic’s East Cobb and Kennestone locations. He said food allergies can develop at any age and symptoms can begin within seconds. Anaphylactic reactions can exacerbate other medical conditions, such as asthma, making treatment more difficult.
He said food allergies are more noticeable in children older than 6 months because their diet begins to increase. Milk and eggs are the two most common offending foods for children, but many times they outgrow them. Dr. Fineman said, “Those are usually more of a transient phenomenon.”
At the onset of an allergic reaction, Dr. Fineman said injectable epinephrine can help with allergic reactions. However, he stresses going to the emergency room immediately.
“Even though (the epinephrine) can help a lot, depending upon how allergic the patient is and what dose of the allergy they got, they might need a second dose of epinephrine or more treatment,” he said.
Blood, oral and skin tests can determine allergies, and Dr. Fineman said a patient’s medical history can determine the type of test administered. “In terms of making a diagnosis of food allergy, you really need to put the whole picture together and base it on more than just one diagnostic test,” he said. “It’s important for the patients to get good advice by a specialist, particularly an allergist, so that they can accurately determine the degree of their sensitivity.”
Although some people outgrow their food allergies, he said the only way to manage them is avoidance.
Michele said the candy bar she ate years ago had Brazil nuts in it, which caused the reaction. “I didn’t know what was happening. My throat was closing, but I thought I had a lump in it,” she said. “At the hospital, they said I had about five more minutes and I would have died.”
Having been aware of her allergies for more than 40 years, Michele carries an EpiPen with her. She is allergic to Brazil nuts, pine nuts and cashews. Her husband, Ed, and oldest son, Eddie, 21, don’t suffer from food allergies. However, Chris and John are both allergic to peanuts.
Both younger boys have had allergic reactions, ranging from vomiting, wheezing and sneezing, that landed them in the hospital. Michele recalls how a pack of candy sent John to the hospital.
“John went to eat what he thought were Skittles. They were in his friend’s holiday candy,” she said. “What happened is that a Reese’s Pieces had broken out and gotten in there. He knew it right away.”
Three years ago, the family was in Cancun and had another scare. She noticed Chris’ eyes were glassy and puffy.
“He went through the buffet line and grabbed a piece of chicken, which he thought was very safe,” she said. “I went back, and it was chicken in peanut sauce.” Michele said language barriers at the hospital added to the frustration and fear.
Both John and Chris have EpiPens, but Michele said the younger brother is more diligent at carrying it. As Chris prepares for college, the mom admits she worries about him traveling abroad and watching his diet.
Eating at home hasn’t been a problem, Michele said. She said both “Eds” are supportive of the dietary needs of her two younger sons, as well as hers. She keeps a jar of peanut butter in the house because she and her husband like it, and she isn’t allergic to it.
“I don’t have it when Chris and John are around. If I’ve used a knife, I wash it before I even put it in the dishwasher,” she said. “If a recipe calls for nuts, I don’t have them.”
Potluck dinners serve to be more of a dilemma. “It’s scary. You don’t know who’s made what. I almost always stay away from desserts,” she said.
Dining out can also be a challenge, but she said, “Restaurants have definitely become more aware of the severity of allergies.” In some instances, the family has even been able to talk to the chefs about using different pans to cook certain dishes.
Michele said Dr. Fineman, who has been the family’s allergy and asthma doctor for nearly 20 years, said allergies can transfer differently.
“My dad has very bad hay fever. My mother is allergic to dust and dust mites,” she said. “My mom’s cousin is allergic to peanuts. For me, it was odd that two out of three of the boys got allergies.”
She stresses the importance of education and being proactive. “If you are not sure about something, just don’t eat it. It’s not worth it,” she said.