The Stress of Food Allergies

Constant risk has a psychological toll

Allergies are an invisible condition. A food allergy in particular is not always obvious; a person can be in the physical condition of an Olympic athlete and still have a potentially fatal allergy lurking, just waiting for the wrong food to cross the palate. This is the stress of food allergies.

As the person who has a life-threatening allergy, you put your life at risk every time you eat food that you haven't personally made. That cafeteria sandwich whose ingredients you studied so carefully could still be fatal if the person who made it handled your allergen (for example, peanut butter) just before. Those French fries could kill you because the tongs used to scoop them came in contact with cheese. That supposedly harmless vegetable oil in the salad dressing could have soy in it. Even if you are forthcoming about your allergy, you are gambling that the person making the food understands your directions and how important it is to follow them exactly.

That's not a small thing.

In Canada, anaphylaxis deaths are not reported to any central agency, so it's unclear how many Canadians die as a result of their allergies. In the United States, the Food Allergy & Anaphylactic Network has estimated that as many as 150 to 200 Americans die each year due to anaphylactic shock.

Anaphylactic shock is a system-wide reaction in the body that often compromises breathing. It can be treated on the spot with an EpiPen, which injects epinephrine into the body, allowing the patient enough time to get to a hospital for emergency treatment.

Even with an EpiPen and all precautions taken, however, the fear of a reaction is ever-present, and this fear can be as or more difficult to manage than the allergy itself.

Deena Mandell, professor of sociology at Laurier University, confirms that severe food allergies can present a psychological challenge for individuals who have them. She co-authored a study in 2005 that indicated that anaphylaxis poses unique challenges, particularly around social life.

With anaphylaxis, there are no outward indicators of a problem, so individuals who do not have or understand allergies often cannot relate. It's hard for them to grasp the seriousness of the condition.

At the same time, because so many of our social rituals involve food, anaphylaxis can create social isolation as individuals withdraw to protect themselves. Even an act as simple as kissing a date goodnight could result in a fatal allergy attack if that date has eaten a food allergen. This danger adds a level of tension to what is already for some an anxiety-producing situation.

There are ways, however, for people who suffer from anaphylaxis to reduce their stress and manage their condition without withdrawing from their social lives. Some tips are:

·Frequent the same restaurants and get to know the managers and staff. Be sure to remind them every time about your allergy. Personal relationships lead to more awareness.

·When in a group, always remind the others of your allergy.

·Be sure that your co-workers know about your allergy so that they can support you in maintaining a safe work environment.

Fear of an allergic reaction shouldn't keep you from living as normal a life as possible, but some stress can - and should - remain. Anaphylaxis is, after all, a life-threatening condition, and a certain amount of fear keeps one vigilant. The key is to manage the fear as well as you do the allergy.

May 3, 2007

The Toronto Star

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