Kourtney Kardashian’s son Mason taken to ER

People magazine reports that Kourtney Kardashian’s 11 month old son, Mason, was taken to the emergency room on Friday night after having a reaction to peanut butter. Kardashian wrote on her blog:

“Friday night Mason ate some peanut butter and had a little allergic reaction to it. He threw up within minutes of tasting it and got hives on his face. I called 911 and the fire department came immediately. They suggested that we take him to the hospital, so we did. He was in good spirits the whole time and didn’t even know anything was wrong. He even enjoyed riding in the ambulance. He’s such a good boy!!”

What Is Food Allergy?

Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food triggered by the body’s immune system. Food allergy refers to a particular type of response of the immune system in which the body produces what is called an allergic, or IgE, antibody to a food. (IgE, or immunoglobulin E, is a type of protein that works against a specific food, or other allergy producing substance.)

Allergic reactions to food can cause serious illness and, in some cases, death. Therefore, if you have a food allergy, it is extremely important to work with your healthcare provider to find out what food or foods cause the allergic reaction.

Sometimes, a reaction to food is not an allergy at all but another type of reaction called food intolerance. (See our story about Gwyneth Paltrow and Chinese Detox, Allergy Relief) Food intolerance is more common than food allergy. The immune system does not cause the symptoms of food intolerance, though these symptoms may look and feel like those of a food allergy.

How Do Allergic Reactions Work?

An immediate allergic reaction involves two actions of the  immune system:

1. Your immune system produces IgE. This protein is called a food-specific antibody, and it circulates through your blood.
2.  The food-specific IgE then attaches to basophils and mast cells. Basophils are found in blood. Mast cells are found in body tissues, especially in areas of your body that are typical sites of allergic reactions. Those sites include your nose, throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Generally, your immune system will form IgE against a food if you come from a family in which allergies are common. These allergies are not necessarily food allergies, but may be other allergic diseases, such as hay fever or asthma. If you have two allergic parents, you are more likely to develop food allergy than someone with one allergic parent.

If your immune system is inclined to form IgE to certain foods, you must be exposed to the food before you can have an allergic reaction to it. As this food is digested, it triggers certain cells in your body to produce a food-specific IgE in large amounts. The food-specific IgE is then released and attaches to the surfaces of mast cells and basophils. The next time you eat that food, it interacts with food-specific IgE on the surface of the mast cells and basophils and triggers those cells to release chemicals. Depending on the tissue in which they are released, these chemicals will cause you to have various symptoms of food allergy.

An allergic reaction to food can take place within a few minutes to an hour. The process of eating and digesting food affects the timing and the location of a reaction:

  • If you are allergic to a particular food, you may first feel itching in your mouth as you start to eat the food.
  • After the food is digested in your stomach, you may have GI symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, or pain.
  • When the food allergens enter and travel through your bloodstream, they may cause your blood pressure to drop.
  • As the allergens reach your skin, they can cause hives or eczema.
  • When the allergens reach your mouth and lungs, they may cause throat tightness and trouble breathing.

Common Food Allergies

In adults, the foods that most often cause allergic reactions include the following:

  • Shellfish, such as shrimp, crayfish, lobster, and crab
  • Peanut
  • Tree nuts, such as walnuts
  • Fish such as salmon

These are the most common foods that cause problems in children:

  • Egg
  • Milk
  • Peanut
  • Tree nuts
  • Soy (primarily in infants)
  • Wheat

Adults usually keep their allergies for life, but children sometimes outgrow them. Children are more likely to outgrow allergies to milk, egg, or soy than allergies to peanuts.

Food allergy is treated by avoiding the foods that trigger the reaction. Many allergy-producing foods such as peanuts, eggs, and milk, appear in foods one normally would not associate them with, so you should look at food labels carefully.

If you are highly allergic, even the tiniest amounts of a food allergen (for example, a small portion of a peanut kernel) can prompt an allergic reaction.

If you have food allergies, you must be prepared to treat unintentional exposure. Even people who know a lot about what they are sensitive to occasionally make a mistake. To protect yourself if you have had allergic reactions to a food, you should take the following precautions:

  • Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace stating that you have a food allergy and are subject to severe reactions??
  • Carry an auto-injector device containing epinephrine (adrenaline), such as an epipen or twinject, that you can get by prescription and give to yourself if you think you are getting a food allergic reaction
  • Seek medical help immediately, even if you have already given yourself epinephrine, by either calling the rescue squad or by getting transported to an emergency room

Anaphylactic allergic reactions can be fatal even when they start off with mild symptoms such as a tingling in the mouth and throat or gastrointestinal discomfort.

For more information about peanut and food allergies, click here to go to the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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