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The Allergy Blogs • The Editor's Desk

Fear by the Plateful

There’s some absorbing and provocative reading in Allergic Living’s new Spring 2007 issue. A good way, we thought, to kick off a new publishing season.

In the article “Fear of Food,” we start with an issue that some of you living with food allergies will recognize: the sudden fear of even “safe” foods. It’s a topic I’d discussed over the better part of a year with contributing writer Jennifer Van Evra. She shares my interest in the psychological effects of food allergy, and of trying to make life with allergies “livable”.

We decided to investigate what it was about anaphylaxis that left the allergic (or their parents) in a state of fear of many foods – even ones that had never been implicated in a reaction. Why would this happen? And, could it be brought under control?

Van Evra came to the topic with her own food fear experience. The year was 1996, and she’d been granted an internship at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco. She knew she was at risk of anaphylaxis to tree nuts, peanuts and shellfish, and avoided them.

But just before she was to move from Vancouver, “I started having these random food reactions. I was eating things that most definitely did not have peanuts or nuts or shellfish in them, and I just couldn’t figure out what I was reacting to.” She became frightened of every bite.

She moved to find herself “in this big American city, where I didn’t know a soul.” In dread of a major reaction on her own, “I was more scared than I’ve ever been in my life.” Fortunately, Van Evra’s situation resolved when an allergist determined the foods that were causing her weeks of waking up with a racing heart, swollen face and difficulty breathing. He found she was reacting to wine, tomatoes and eggs (though not anaphylaxing as such). With those foods and wine out of her diet, her reactions – and her fears – subsided.

The writer could certainly relate to the allergic subjects in “Afraid of Food” and their struggles with the psychological effects. “This just never gets talked about,” says Van Evra.

In 20 years since she was first diagnosed, “never once has an allergist said, ‘Are you OK?’ What’s interesting is that between allergic people, we take care of the psychological side with each other. That’s why it’s so important that we talk to other people with allergies.”

What is eye-opening in the article, is that the psychological reactions can be so profound in some people that experts call them symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “It makes perfect sense,” says Van Evra. “Anaphylaxis is traumatic.”

Psychology, it seems, also affects those with asthma. Associate Editor Claire Gagné delves into the facts behind the crisis in asthma control in her article – “Running on Empty”. A majority of asthmatics has become so resistant to the notion of drug taking, or so confused by the term “corticosteroid” that they are shunning perfectly safe controller drugs and giving up exercise and sports. Instead they’ve settled for shortness of breath, flare-ups and missing out in life.

As Gagné finds, it doesn’t have to be this way. There is clearly a crisis, not just in control, but in the education of asthmatics. Given the numbers of ER visits for asthma – 73,000 last year in Ontario alone – it is time for Health Canada and the provincial health ministries to give asthma education much higher priority.

The psychology of allergic disease is the real food for thought in this issue, but there’s plenty more. We have a handy field guide to the trees that make you sneeze in spring, a look at celiac in kids, great “green” flooring advice, and even considerations to make that summer wedding reaction-free. Enjoy the spring and the issue. And if you’re asthmatic – get a prescription, take the medication – and do get outside.

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