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Any food allergy can be a source of concern, but severe peanut allergies seem to be especially dangerous for a number of reasons. Peanuts and products derived from peanuts are very popular among consumers, which makes eliminating all traces of peanut protein from a specific area nearly impossible. Those afflicted with the most severe form of allergies can have reactions simply by touching a phone or doorknob with even the slightest trace of peanut residue. Peanut dust carried in the air can also trigger a violent allergic reaction.
The exceptionally small amount of peanut material needed to trigger an allergic reaction is one reason such allergies are considered dangerous. Not everyone who suffers from peanut allergies is so sensitive, but those who are can suddenly go into anaphylactic shock within minutes of exposure to peanut products. They can also have an outbreak of hives, a painful irritation triggered by allergens. Anaphylactic shock or anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction which can cause the tissues around the upper airway to swell. This often creates a life-threatening inability to breath normally.
Because there is no known cure for peanut allergies, this threat of a severe allergic reaction and/or anaphylaxis is always present for sufferers. Going through an average day at work or school can be very challenging, since many products and materials contain traces of peanuts, or may have had incidental contact with peanut products. A person with severe allergies may scrupulously avoid any foods containing peanuts, but still come in contact with any number of other sources. The result could be a potentially fatal allergic reaction if medical intervention is not available.
Only a very small percentage of the general population suffers from the most severe form of peanut allergies, but some people may have an undiagnosed sensitivity and suffer many of the same problems after exposure. The use of a auto-injection pen containing epinephrine may address the immediate allergy symptoms, but a person with a severe allergy could have another outbreak of symptoms several hours later.
Because of the risk of a severe allergic reaction, many public institutions and travel industries have instituted peanut-free policies. A number of public schools no longer serve peanut butter sandwiches or any other food containing peanuts, since young children are most likely to develop severe peanut allergies. Many airlines have also stopped offering peanut products as snacks on flights, primarily because a passenger suffering from severe peanut allergies could have a medical emergency while the plane is in flight. Foods containing peanuts, or tree nuts, must feature a warning on their labeling.
Foods made on the same equipment as peanuts are not required to be labeled, although some companies do. "Contains" and "May Contain" are different. If a “Contains” statement appears on a food label, it must include the food source names of all major food allergens used as ingredients. Some manufacturers voluntarily include a “may contain” statement on their labels when there is a chance that a food allergen could be present.
Be aware that the “may contain” statement is voluntary. You still need to read the ingredient list to see if the product contains your allergen.
This is a major battle for families with food allergies and is one reason why just reading the label is not enough. When choosing bread, milk, prepackaged lettuce mix one is always wondering if they use the same equipment to process peanuts or really any allergen.