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With food allergies, even eating is a risk - Potentially lethal food allergies make monitoring a must

Hopping atop their wooden footstools, Carter and Zachary Peel wiggle in between their parents, Suzy and Jeff, to place cupcake liners in a baking pan.

A birthday party is later in the day, and the family, as usual, will take its own snacks.

Carter, 4 1/2, is allergic to peanuts, potentially the most serious of food allergies. Exposure to even the tiniest crumb can cause a life-threatening reaction.

"People sometimes say, 'Just give me a list of safe foods,' " Suzy Peel says. "Well, there are no safe foods."
A "safe" food may have been contaminated if it's prepared with shared equipment or even in the same place that processes a food to which you're allergic. And ingredients in a commercially prepared food may have changed since the last time you bought it.

"That's why we say, 'Read every label, every time,' " Suzy Peel says. "It's where things hide that you have to worry about or whether someone might have baked food on a pan used earlier to make peanut butter cookies, for instance."

Dr. William F. Morgan of the Arizona Asthma & Allergy Institute says vigilance such as the Peels practice isn't easy, but making it routine is the key to successfully managing a food allergy.

"There are no effective preventive medicines," he says, and no cures — although some people outgrow their allergies.

Morgan says about 2 percent of American adults and up to 8 percent of kids suffer from food allergies. Allergies to shellfish or other fish (6.9 million people) and peanuts or tree nuts (3.3 million people) are the most common. Also on topping the list of foods to which people are allergic are milk, eggs, soy and wheat.

The presence of any of these eight, which are responsible for about 90 percent of allergic reactions to food, must be indicated on labels in easy-to-understand terms, the Food and Drug Administration says.

"There's a lot of education that needs to be done so the patient and family can learn how to read labels and avoid accidental exposure and so on," Morgan says.

But it's nearly impossible to eliminate every chance exposure. As careful as they are, teachers and parents don't always know when kids come to school with snacks tucked into their pockets.

On his wrist, Carter wears a Velcro-fastened band with a medical-alert tag.

Zachary, 2 1/2, doesn't have allergies, but he, too, is learning to say no — to Snickers and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and, in fact, to any food Mom and Dad haven't checked out.

A magnetic sign on the family's refrigerator door reads: "This Is a Peanut-Free Zone" — it's safest for Carter when everyone's on board with his allergy-management plan.

It's less scary, too, when he reads from the family's growing library of picture books about kids with food allergies or looks with Mom and Dad through a children's newsletter from the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

Carter is not hesitant now to ask questions about ingredients or to decline a taste of someone's food.

"All of this [education] empowers him," Suzy Peel says.

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