A Florida mother is speaking out about the dangers of food allergies, this after her 15-year-old daughter passed away suddenly after ingesting what was thought to be peanut-free cookies; a tragedy that serves as a warning to all grocery shoppers and allergy sufferers to check the list of ingredients before consuming the products they buy…because while you might think a certain product is peanut-free (especially if it’s something you’ve been buying for a while and have gotten used to), changes can occur at any time in both the ingredients used as well as the way in which the product is manufactured.

In Canada, food manufacturers are required to clearly label products (whether pre-packaged or not, domestic, or imported) if they contain any of the following priority allergens: Peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, egg, milk, seafood, sesame, sulphites, and mustard. While it’s not required, Health Canada also encourages manufacturers to warn consumers if any of their products might have come into contact (also known as cross-contamination) with any of the aforementioned allergens by using “may contain” on their labeling as a precautionary statement. Cross-contamination occurs when a trace amount of an allergen comes into contact (or has potentially come into contact) with another food by accident, oftentimes during the processing of food. While some people will take the risk and still eat products with this precautionary labelling, even a small amount of an allergen can be enough to cause a severe allergic reaction – a risk that family physician, Dr. Ali Ghahary, along with allergists and immunologists, say is too big of a risk to take, as you could be putting your own life in peril by doing so.

Allergic reactions come in many different forms, and can occur as little as 20 minutes after exposure to an allergen, or as long as several hours. Allergic reactions can impact the skin (itching, redness, hives, swelling and rash), the gastrointestinal system (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain/cramps), the cardiovascular system (appearing pale or blue in colour, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, fainting, having a weak pulse), and the respiratory system (nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, itchy or watery eyes, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath.) A severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis (or anaphylactic shock) can also occur, which results in difficulty breathing and swallowing. This type of reaction requires immediate medical attention by calling 911.

When it comes to avoiding allergens and not having an allergic reaction, there are certain safety measures you can take – whether at home, at work, or at school. As mentioned, always make sure you read food labels carefully. When cooking at home, wash your hands often in between meal preparation. If you’ve cooked with an allergen, don’t use the same utensils to serve food to someone with a known allergy, and be sure to carefully wash silverware, plates, pots, pans and cutting boards with dish detergent and water. It’s important to be allergy aware when dining out, too. Because many restaurants serve or cook with certain allergens, some of them will also have separate cooking spaces and a different preparation process to ensure allergy sufferers can safely eat in their establishments. Always be sure to notify your server of your allergies so that they can accommodate you appropriately. Because allergies are so common, most schools and childcare programs (such as daycare) have banned parents and children from having peanut butter packed as part of their snack or lunch. If your child does have an allergy, it’s important to let the school staff know. Also don’t be afraid to ask what the school’s policy is on allergens. Travel can also be problematic for allergy sufferers – especially if traveling abroad to foreign countries. Before booking that vacation, call around to different resorts, hotels and restaurants and ask what their policies are when it comes to allergens. It may also be a good idea to book a hotel room that has a small kitchenette so that you are able to prepare some of your own foods. Click here for more food allergy travel tips, including current regulations and available emergency services in 13 of some of the most traveled to countries.