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So says Dr. Vincent Oswunda, an Edmonton allergist and immunologist, who adds although most people develop allergies in childhood, adults can still develop an allergy and suffer as much as any child.
"You can start having allergic reactions at any age and at any time," Oswunda says.
An allergy to sulphites -- the chemical additives used to stop food from browning or spoiling -- is most often diagnosed in adults, especially in those who already have asthma. Sulphites were recently added to Health Canada's list of the most common food allergens, along with more familiar foods like peanuts and dairy.
Four per cent of asthmatics are sensitive to sulphites, and one per cent of the general adult population will have an allergic reaction if exposed to the additive. A reaction can range from headaches to anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly allergic reaction that can include watery eyes, a skin rash, breathing problems, and a severe drop in blood pressure.
Oswunda explains that most sulphite allergies develop in childhood, but that it's not until adulthood that people start being exposed to the wines, beer and dried fruits that commonly contain the additive. Sulphites can appear in such foods as store-bought baked goods, canned vegetables and most junk foods. In Canada, grapes are the only fresh food allowed to contain sulphites.
Nancy Boni, chairperson of the Manitoba Anaphylaxis Information Network, says many adults "play Russian roulette" with their food allergies. She says they may have a mild reaction and take an antihistamine to deal with it without realizing that "the next reaction could be a fatal one."
Manitoba is one of two provinces that have legislation dealing with life-threatening food allergies. It requires school boards develop a policy to meet the needs of pupils who have diagnosed anaphylaxis.
Boni says she is disappointed the law doesn't specify what should be in the policy, but at least it "provides support for parents when dealing with administration in schools. Because of the law, they will pay more attention," to the parents' concerns.
Health Canada estimates that three to four per cent of the adult population and six per cent of children have severe food allergies, a number that has grown in the last few decades.
Andrea Shainblum, founder of the Montreal Anaphylaxis Support Group, has lived with severe allergies to sesame seeds, peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs since she was five years old. She says life with food allergies has changed since she was younger.
"When I was a kid with allergies, I was the only one," she says. "I was the allergy kid in my school." Today, some schools have dozens of students with life-threatening allergies to everything from peanuts to dairy and gluten.
Oswunda says the higher number of people with food allergies is partially a factor of increased awareness: "People are more aware of allergic reactions now than they were 15 to 20 years ago."
In addition, foods only recently introduced into the North American diet might factor in the increase. "Sesame seed," Oswunda says by way of example, "is not a North American food."
He says once a new food is introduced to a population, it can take years for people to develop the antibodies to become allergic to it. When the person with the antibodies is exposed to the trigger food, the body reacts by going into anaphylaxis.
Shainblum had a particularly bad anaphylactic reaction at a food court in Toronto when she ate a dish of rice that had come into contact with sesame seeds. Although she had asked if the dish contained sesame and was assured it did not, after a few bites she felt a lump in her throat and noticed her eyes and nose were running. By the time she asked the chef to see an ingredient list, she was in distress.
"I was basically collapsing," Shainblum says. "I was gasping." A couple of good Samaritans drove her to the hospital, and by the time Shainblum arrived she was unconscious. She was resuscitated and kept overnight for observation.
Shainblum founded the Montreal support group in 2003. She emphasizes that a food allergy, although potentially dangerous and limiting, doesn't have mean you can't have a good life. Shainblum is a part-time religion professor at Concordia University, is completing her PhD, and is happily married with a two-year-old daughter.
"It is possible to live and thrive with an allergy," Shainblum says. "And I do."
-- Canwest News Service
The nine most
seafood (fish, crustaceans, and shellfish)
tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans)
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