March 13, 2006

Food-Allergic Teens Often Take Risks with Food

By Megan Rauscher

NEW YORK -- A substantial number of teenagers with food allergies admit to "risk-taking" behavior such as not reading food labels or knowingly eating foods labeled "may contain" allergens, a survey shows.

The poll of 174 food-allergic individuals whose average age was 16 years also shows that many of them do not always carry self-injectable epinephrine -- the medication that is immediately needed in the case of a severe allergic reaction.

Whether or not they pack their EpiPens depends largely on where they are going, who they will be with, and how convenient it is to carry it. If the purse is small or the clothes tight-fighting, odds are they won't carry it.

"If you're not carrying it with you, it's a little hard to inject it," Dr. Scott H. Sicherer from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York warned at an asthma and allergy conference in Miami Beach.

Among the food-allergic teens surveyed, 75 percent were allergic to peanuts, 20 percent to milk, 75 percent were allergic to two or more foods, 82 percent had had a severe "anaphylactic" allergic reaction at some time in their lifetime, and 52 percent had more than three.

The teens reported they were most apt to carry epinephrine with them when traveling (94 percent) or going out to eat (81 percent).

However, when they are with friends, at school or dance events, or on dates, "we are looking at levels that are generally below 65 percent of the time that they are carrying it," Sicherer said. Teens are least likely to take epinephrine to sports events (43 percent).

Studies have shown that food-allergic teenagers and young adults are at highest risk for dying from a severe allergic reaction. "We have to impress upon parents of these children and for the teenagers themselves and for those around them that they have to be consistent in carrying self-injectable epinephrine," Sicherer said.

The survey also revealed that three quarters of the teens said they "always" read food labels, but 42 percent said they would eat a food labeled "may contain" an allergen.

Only 60 percent of food-allergic teens told their friends about their allergy, but most of those that did not indicated that they wanted their friends to know and wished the school would tell them. "That's very telling," Sicherer said. "These teenagers are really thirsty for their friends around them to know about their allergy and they are a little reluctant to do the teaching themselves."

Sixty-eight percent felt that educating their friends would make living with food allergy easier.