An estimated 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies, and about 150 die every year.
Researchers at Denver, Colorado, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York recently analyzed 31 allergy deaths. They found most of those who died from food-related reactions were teenagers or young adults. They were away from home when they ate the item that killed them.
"We were surprised that so few people had gotten correct information about ingredients in restaurant settings, which accounted for about half of these fatal reactions," said study author Anne Muņoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.
"The individuals either did not ask about ingredient information -- and assumed the food was safe -- or the restaurant staff gave them incorrect or incomplete information."
Of those who died after accidentally eating the food to which they were allergic, 58 percent were between the ages of 13 and 30. Of the 31 people the study examined, 68 percent had eaten outside of their home, for example at a restaurant, school cafeteria or the home of friends. More than 80 percent of the deaths were caused by peanuts or tree nuts, such as almonds, cashews and pecans.
The study also documented four milk-allergic individuals who died after accidental exposure to a dairy containing product and two who had eaten shrimp.
Experts say those with severe food allergies should always carry self-injectable epinephrine, a form of adrenaline usually carried in a small device called an Epipen. That should be used in case of accidental ingestion of an offending food.
Dr. Hugh Sampson, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and a study co-author, likens an allergic reaction to a "snowball coming down a mountain." At the top of mountain it's small "but by the time it gets to the bottom of the mountain it becomes huge."
For those with food allergies, vigilance about food preparation is essential to staying safe. "The extra challenge for teens with food allergies is that they need to be careful about every food that goes into their mouth or into the mouth of someone they're going to kiss," Muņoz-Furlong cautioned.
Most allergy victims covered by the latest study had asthma in addition to their food allergy. And some of them did not even know that food-induced allergic reactions could be fatal.