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Food for Thought: What Hurricane Sandy Can Teach Us about Food Allergy Preparedness

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Woman and young girl grocery shopping

Elizabeth O’Connell knows that only way to prevent a food-allergy reaction is to avoid the problem food. For her that means having to interpret precautionary language, like “may contain,” and double check ingredients labels in a race to keep up with her teenage son.

Elizabeth’s now teenage son has had a severe food allergy for as long as anyone can remember. A food allergy occurs when a person’s immune system wrongly reacts to certain foods as if they are harmful to the body.

The symptoms and severity of an allergic reaction differ for every person, and can change for a person over time. The most severe type of reaction is an anaphylactic reaction. Anaphylaxis is a sudden and severe allergic reaction that may cause death.

Elizabeth’s son is at risk to have anaphylaxis reaction any time he eats peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, and sesame. Milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the United States.

That anaphylaxis can happen within minutes of an exposure is a frightening reality, but after years of taking every precaution, Elizabeth was confident in her preparations. That was until Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Hurricane Sandy

As prepared as Elizabeth thought her family was to protect her then 9-year-old son, Hurricane Sandy was a revelation. And, relatively speaking, the O’Connell’s weren’t affected to the extent that many other families were. Their biggest issue was not having power for five days. Even then, they were able to run an extension cord from their neighbor’s house to their own.

Because her neighbors were there to help, it took a while for Elizabeth to realize how unprepared her family was for a storm on the scale of Sandy. It wasn’t until she heard that her hometown were cut off and the people there, including family members, were stranded incommunicado that her perspective changed.

“My mind immediately went to my son and how unprepared I was for the aftermath of a storm like Sandy,” said Elizabeth. “As a food allergy parent, I like to think that I operate at a high level of preparedness. Everyday preparations and plans are no match for disasters of the size and scope of Sandy.”

Despite having relatively little impact on the health of her family, Hurricane Sandy made a big impression on the way Elizabeth prepares for public health emergencies. People who have fewer resources can have fewer options, which—in an emergency—can box them into making unhealthy situations.

Instead of the minimum 72 hours of personal needs, Elizabeth now stockpiles a several days’ worth of food, water, and prescriptions. Her emergency kit includes alternative and back-up power sources for their cell phones because they don’t have a landline. And whenever severe weather is in the forecast, Elizabeth tops off the gas tanks in her vehicles in case they need to drive out of town to find an open hospital or emergency department.

Preparing for Food Allergy Emergencies

At the end of the day—in times of blue skies and disaster—the best ways to prepare for a food allergy reaction is to avoid the foods that cause symptoms and to ready yourself and those around you to respond. Fast recognition of a problem and decisive treatment can prevent serious health problems or death.

Here five ways parents of children with food allergies can prepare for and prevent a food allergy emergency, including the possibility of one happening during a disaster.

  • Set aside at least a 3-day supply of nonperishable and allergen-free foods, more if you can. Update your supplies every six (6) months. Remove and exchange any food before it expires, remembering to recheck the labels of any replacement food items. Manufacturers can change ingredients and their production processes without warning.
  • Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace with information about your food allergy.
  • Create a Food Allergy Action Plan in consult with your doctor. Make copies to include in your Emergency Action Plan, to post in plain sight at home and at work, and to give to your child’s school or daycare provider.
  • Carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times (if prescribed). Remember to replace epinephrine before it expires or it may not work properly. Show family, friends, and coworkers how to use an auto-injector in a medical emergency.
  • Learn and teach others how to read food labels. If in doubt about the meaning of a warning label or the identity of a listed ingredient, don’t consume the item and/or contact the manufacturer for clarification.

For more information on prepare your health for emergencies, visit www.cdc.gov/prepyourhealth.

 

Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that the CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor. 

Have a question for CDC? CDC-INFO (http://www.cdc.gov/cdc-info/index.html) offers live agents by phone and email to help you find the latest, reliable, and science-based health information on more than 750 health topics.

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