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NJ.com: Be ready to react - Food allergies a concern for students away from home

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By Nutternomore on Thu, 08-30-07, 04:52

[b]Be ready to react[/b]
[i]Food allergies a concern for students away from home[/i]

Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff

Carly Baker was a Duke University student taking a lunch break from her part-time job when her throat began to close minutes after tasting several pieces of sushi she bought in the school cafeteria and had dipped in sauce that came with it.

Unknown to her, the sauce contained peanuts, which triggered the former New Jersey resident's life-threatening allergy to peanuts.

"I had a mini panic attack," recalled Baker, a 2006 college graduate.

So did her mother.

"It was horrible. I'm a Realtor, and I was out showing a house when I got the call from her," said Cynthia Baker, of Summit.

All was well after Carly quickly administered a shot of epinephrine from her epipen, which she always carries with her, and was taken to the emergency room by her boss to ensure she would be okay.

If you have a food allergy, especially one that's severe and potentially life threatening, and you're leaving home for college, make sure you prepare and protect yourself as you enter your new life.

"One hundred and fifty people die every year from food allergy reactions, and the largest group appears to be teens and young adults -- kids in college or away from home," says Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and chief executive officer of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "One of the factors for fatal reactions is not having medications, not recognizing symptoms and not getting help quickly."

"What goes on in college is, kids want to be like everybody else. They don't want to have to stop and admit, 'I have to deal with this,'" said Victoria Eftychiou, assistant director of health services at Seton Hall University in South Orange. "They really can't let their guard down, and that's where kids can get into a jam."

People's allergies to food varies widely -- some experience only mild symptoms when exposed to food allergens while, for others, brief contact with a trace amount of the food they're allergic to can mean a trip to the emergency room or even death and can include reactions such as constriction of airways, a plunge in blood pressure and loss of consciousness.

A person's food allergy is usually identified and documented during childhood. If you suspect you're allergic to certain foods but never had testing by an allergy specialist, you should consider doing so because that's the only way to truly confirm the existence of an allergy, according to Leonard Bielory, a physician and director of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey's Asthma and Allergy Research Center in Newark. Food allergies are real, he says, but "the number-one problem is, food allergies are over-diagnosed."

He adds, however, "If a person really has a food allergy, they really need to know what to do."

Protective parents who think they can monitor their children's allergy issues by talking to health personnel at the college had better think again. Students over 18 need to provide written consent for their parents to access health-related information about them from the college, according to Eftychiou.

"For parents, sending a child off to college tops the list for stress, but they need to trust their child," Munoz-Furlong said. "This is the beginning of your child's life. They need to feel that, in spite of their food allergies, they can do anything anybody else can do and, if they make a mistake or get overwhelmed, parents should be there to provide help but also to say, 'I know you can do this.'"

"Prevention, prevention, prevention" is the best tactic for a college-bound person with food allergies, according to Eftychiou.

If you haven't done so already, contact your college's dining services division, as well as the health services department, and tell them about your food allergy. Ask the dining staff how they prepare food, if they take steps to prevent cross-contamination of the food you're allergic to with other foods and what ingredients are used in the meals they routinely make.

Registered dietitians at some schools will provide tours of the kitchens and dining halls. Some dining staffs will make arrangements to prepare meals separately for people with food allergies and set them aside to be picked up when the person is ready to eat.

"This should be an ongoing conversation," said Munoz-Furlong. "They need to depend on these people for every single meal, so this should be a relationship and a partnership, not a one-time meeting."

When you speak to the health services staff, Munoz-Furlong says, "find out what they want you to do if you have (an allergic) reaction. Do you notify them? Call 911 directly? Can 911 get onto the campus? You need to know how fast they can move because you don't know how quickly a reaction can come."

Once you arrive on campus, declare yourself to key people who you'll be in close contact with: your roommate, the resident assistant on your dorm floor, your friends, your athletic coach.

"They need to be very clear about their allergy. It is not the time to be secretive about it because reactions are never planned, and your roommate may be the person you need to go to if you have a reaction," Munoz-Furlong said.

Make sure these key players respect your allergy, meaning they truly understand it's potentially dangerous.

"Some people think food allergies are just a preference but, for many people, it's a life-and-death situation," said Peggy Policastro, nutrition specialist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

Work out such details with your roommate as where he or she can store certain foods you're allergic to in your shared space. Let your roommate know where you keep your medication and what needs to take place if you should have an allergic reaction so they'll know how to help you.

Don't be afraid your roommate and new acquaintances will think you're a neurotic weirdo.

"The chances are, now, because food allergies are so common, many of the students will have entered college knowing about it, or they know someone who has it, or they have it themselves, so you're not going to be alone," said Munoz-Furlong.

You should also never eat alone, advised Policastro. "Make sure you eat with someone who knows you have a food allergy and knows where your epipen is."

In college, you'll inevitably find yourself up late at night, studying and hungry but with no open restaurants. Make sure you keep a stash of "safe" foods in your dorm room for just such an occasion, suggests Munoz-Furlong.

If you want to put in an order for take-out food or hit a local restaurant with friends, take the time to do some research first. Visit the restaurant on your own and ask to speak to the manager. Explain your food allergy and, as you did with the dining services staff at your college, ask about their food preparation, ingredients and how or if they can accommodate your allergy.

If you're going to a party, make sure you're not in a position where you're tempted to eat food that doesn't have an ingredient label.

You should also watch your alcohol intake, Munoz-Furlong says. If you're drinking, she says, your senses may be dulled and you may not be picking up on early warning signs that you're experiencing an allergic reaction.

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