Imagine being killed by eating a peanut.
It might sound unlikely, but that's all it can take to prove fatal to those who are allergic to certain foods.
Sometimes a person with a food allergy doesn't even have to sample a dish that contains the offending food product.
A whiff of it shellfish, peanuts or other foods is enough to pose a serious risk, says Dr. Chris Miller, an allergist at the Cotton-O'Neil Clinic, 1220 Biltmore Drive.
Luckily, not many of us have a true allergy to different foods, Miller says. Less than 8 percent of children under 3 years old have a food allergy. In adults, that figure is less than 2 percent.
But for those who do have an allergy of this nature, certain foods can be a lethal enemy.
When a person has a severe allergic reaction to a food, he or she goes into anaphylaxis shock with a steep drop in blood pressure, increased heart rate, dizziness and other symptoms.
The only way to be safe is to "totally avoid eating it. It requires strict avoidance and reading labels," Miller says. "We recommend anyone with a serious food allergy carry an Epi Pen. It's just an adrenaline pen that they can self inject" to counteract the reaction.
Foods that most commonly cause allergy problems include shellfish like shrimp, lobster and crab; peanuts and other nuts; egg whites; cow's milk; wheat; chocolate; corn; and soy.
Among these, shellfish and peanuts are the most common offenders.
Allergy or intolerance?
About 30 percent of the population reports having a food allergy, Miller says, but most of these people actually have an intolerance to certain foods. Lactose intolerance, for example, means the body is unable to digest milk sugar.
Intolerance is less serious than a true allergy; it can lead to discomfort, but it's not lethal.
A food allergy is a reaction of a person's immune system to a food component that the body recognizes as foreign.
Most often, the food contains a protein or a molecule linked to protein, says Adrienne Baxter Moore, a registered dietitian on staff at the Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
She estimates that food allergies affect 1 percent to 3 percent of the population.
Baxter defines food intolerance as an adverse reaction to food that results in symptoms falling short of anaphylaxis.
"Food sensitivity" is the umbrella term used to refer to both types of adverse reactions to food both allergies and intolerances.
The lesser symptoms associated with food intolerance include: a runny nose, itching, and gastrointestinal upset with vomiting or diarrhea.
People with food allergies have a lot of work to do to safeguard themselves against danger.
"There's enormous pressure on them. There's this constant vigil they have to keep to avoid their allergens," Baxter says. "It can be tedious, it can be time consuming, and it does require dedication."
Sometimes a food allergy can fade.
"Children can lose their allergies to food products over time. But the two that people normally do not lose are to peanuts and shellfish. They tend to stick with you for a long time," Miller says.
New way of eating
Many customers of the Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Miss., have various food allergies and intolerances, says Nancy O'Connor, nutrition educator and marketing director.
A lot of them say they are sensitive to wheat or gluten a part of many grains. Others report problems with yeast or nuts.
"It's unbelievable how many diets there are for people who are allergic to foods or have an intolerance. We sell a lot of allergy cookbooks," O'Connor says.
Miller, Baxter and O'Connor agree that the best thing to do if you think you have a food allergy is to stop consuming the suspeted food and consult an allergy specialist. A specialist can do a skin test to find out if a reaction to a food substance is present.
For more information, Miller suggests checking out the Web site for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at www.aaai.org. Miller says another good site is the one for the Food Allergy Network at www.foodallergy. org/.
"There are plenty of good, alternative dietary plans out there," he says.