New Focus on Peanut Allergies

ByABC News via logo

Nov. 30, 2005 — -- The death of a Canadian teenager who suffered a fatal allergic reaction to peanuts after kissing her boyfriend is putting a renewed focus on a condition suffered by thousands of Americans.

Fifteen-year-old Christina Desforges of Saguenay, Quebec, died last week after kissing her boyfriend, who had eaten a peanut butter sandwich hours earlier. He passed along traces of peanuts to Desforges, who was severely allergic, and she immediately became short of breath. She was given a shot of adrenaline to counteract the symptoms, but that did not help. She died of respiratory failure in a Quebec City hospital.

One in 200 Americans has a peanut or nut allergy, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Between 50 and 100 people die in the United States each year from severe allergic reactions to peanuts. One study from the University of California-Davis, School of Medicine revealed that kisses caused 5 percent of all peanut reactions.

Michelle Risinger, diagnosed with a severe nut allergy at the age of 2, has made several emergency trips to the hospital. A few years ago, after kissing a former boyfriend, Risinger recognized the dangerous reaction -- instantly.

"It's a tight, tingling sensation," Risinger said. "Hives appear, lips swell, get very hot, etcetera."

Peanut allergies can trigger hives, a drop in blood pressure, bronchial spasms, and a swelling of the face and throat, which can choke the victim. The victim may also go into anaphylactic shock, a severe whole-body reaction.

Risinger's boyfriend had only eaten a cookie made in a factory where nuts are processed. That reaction was relatively mild, but Risinger knows she keeps dodging bullets.

Teens with peanut allergies are in the highest risk group for a severe or fatal allergic reaction, according to the Food Allergy Network. That's because they may not be carrying medication, they may not recognize early symptoms, and they and their friends may not know what to do when a reaction occurs, causing a delay in getting help.

ABC News medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson recommends that those allergic to peanuts carry the "epi-pen" -- a needle that resembles a pen with a shot of the hormone epinephrine. An injection stops the allergic reaction. The epi-pen, however, is just the first step in treating the reaction.

"The epi-pen will just buy you time -- about 10 to 20 minutes," he said. "And in that time, you need to call 911 and get medical help. And, you may need another shot of epinephrine to buy you more time."

Those who are allergic to peanuts must be vigilant about completely avoiding them. But avoiding peanuts altogether is easy to say and hard to do, Johnson said.

"It's one thing to avoid peanuts in your own home, but where you get in trouble is in the outside world -- in restaurants or in school cafeterias where they might be hidden traces of peanuts," Johnson said. "We know of one incident where someone had an allergic reaction from eating a cheese sandwich that was sliced in half using a knife that had also been used to slice a peanut butter sandwich."

Some people are so severely allergic to peanuts that just the aroma triggers an allergic reaction, Johnson said.

"So, if someone sitting next to you on the airplane opens a bag of peanuts, just the dust from the peanuts could trigger an allergic reaction," he said.

To that end, American, Delta Shuttle, Northwest, United and U.S. Airways have all stopped serving peanuts on their flights.

Despite the serious risks a peanut allergy poses, Johnson said he did not believe all children needed to be tested for the allergy.

"It's not practical to screen everyone for peanut allergies," he said. "But children with a history of food allergies and those with asthma or eczema should be tested."

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