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Deaths are a reminder of food allergy dangers
August 26th, 2011
07:30 AM ET

Deaths are a reminder of food allergy dangers

Sloane Miller, MFA, MSW, LMSW is an author, food allergy advocate and life coach. She works with people of all ages to manage their food allergies safely and effectively while still having fun. Her book, Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well With Food Allergies and her award-winning blog, Please Don't Pass the Nuts, offer advice in understanding and living well with food allergies.

The untimely, tragic and preventable deaths last week of two young men in Georgia highlight the seriousness of food allergies and the need for people with food allergies to have an Emergency Allergy Action Plan.

By local news accounts, Jharrell Dillard, 15 from Lawrenceville, Georgia and Tyler Davis, 20 studying at Kennesaw State University, knew what they were allergic to and were vigilant about what they ate. But this one time, without knowing it, they ate something containing their allergen and, caught without an auotinjector of epinephrine, perished.

I was born with severe food allergies to tree nuts and salmon. I’ve had anaphylactic reactions and ended up in the emergency room. Now, as a licensed social worker, I write and counsel clients about how communicate with medical professionals, create emergency allergy action plans, build support systems, dine out and travel, all safely and effectively. These recent deaths are every person with food allergies nightmare and every parent of a food allergic child’s worst fear realized.

Food allergy help for grown-ups

Food allergies are real and, as these recent deaths demonstrate, their effects can be serious and tragic. In June 2011, an article in the journal Pediatrics concluded that 8% of American children under the age of 18 have a life-threatening allergy. According to the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology, between 150 and 200 Americans die each year from anaphylaxis, and from 2003 to 2006, food allergies resulted in approximately 317,000 visits to hospital emergency departments, outpatient clinics and physicians’ offices,

Ninety percent of all food allergic reactions are to the “top eight”: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Symptoms typically include hives, swelling, wheezing and vomiting or diarrhea; in some cases, anaphlyaxis occurs. If not treated immediately with epinephrine, a synthetic adrenaline injected into the body, anaphylaxis can be fatal.

For every child with food allergies heading off to school, for every young adult heading off to college and for adults like me with food allergies heading off on dates or to dine out, it is essential to take our food allergies seriously.

What does taking food allergies seriously mean? It means:

-Understanding what you are allergic to and relying on a medical team including a board certified allergist that understands food allergies
-Creating an emergency allergy action plan with an allergist that includes always carrying your emergency medication, including an autoinjector of epinephrine
-Creating a robust support network of friends family teachers colleagues who can assist in an emergency

Sadly, tragedies like the deaths of these two young men will happen. They are an awful reminder of just how vital an emergency allergy action plan can be.

Online resources:

National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI)

Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.