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Food-Allergic Teens Taking Dangerous Risks

Peer pressure spurs many to neglect medication, try hazardous foods, study finds

FRIDAY, June 16, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Many teens with food allergies are gambling with their lives by not carrying their medications with them and by eating foods they know can be risky, researchers report.

Only 61 percent of subjects in the study said they always carried their dose of epinephrine, a self-injected drug used during severe allergic reactions. Another 54 percent said they sometimes intentionally ate potentially unsafe foods.

The main reason for both these behaviors: peer pressure.

"Teenagers and young adults with food allergies are particularly at high risk for fatalities," said lead researcher Dr. Scott H. Sicherer, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City. "This is an age of experimentation, an age where someone might be likely to take risks. It's also an age where problems are often pushed to the side by peer pressure." he said.

His team's report appears in the June issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

According to Sicherer, in too many allergy-linked deaths, teenagers either did not have their medication with them or waited too long to use it, hoping the attack would pass.

His team sought to find out why this might be so. Surveying the 174 male and female 13- to-21-year-olds in the study, they found that having medication available often depended on activities or circumstances, such as traveling. While traveling, 94 percent took their medication along. However, when participating in sports, just 43 percent of respondents said they had their medication with them. Just 53 percent said they had their medication available when wearing "tight clothing," while more than a third (39 percent) said they didn't bring their anti-allergy drugs to school dances.

Social pressures are a big issue for allergic teenagers, Sicherer said, so teaching their friends about the dangers of food allergy may be key to solving this problem.

"There is a need for educating the peers of food-allergic teenagers," he said. "Since peer pressure is an issue, if they understood what the food allergy is, they would not be saying, 'Let's go eat this,' -- they would be more supportive," he added.

One expert agreed that teaching teens about food allergies could reduce the more than 200 allergy-linked deaths among teens that occur in the United States each year.

"One of the prevailing challenges in health care is to get people to acknowledge their vulnerabilities and replace crisis response with preventive strategies," said Dr. David L. Katz, an associate professor of public health and director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "The challenge is especially acute in adolescents, for whom mortality, let alone vulnerability, is often only vaguely perceived."

Peer bonds are strong for most adolescents, Katz said. "So, while taking precautions for oneself might go against the grain, being educated to assist a friend in need might very well not. The notion that more widespread education about food allergy could reduce the associated toll by preparing peers to intervene is appealing both for practicality, its simplicity, and its compatibility with adolescent priorities," he said.

More information

For more on food allergy, head to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

SOURCES: Scott H. Sicherer, M.D., associate professor, pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor, public health, director, Prevention Research Center Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; June 2006, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology
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