Wondering About Age and Food Allergy Deaths

OK, this is a bit morbid, but bear with me.

Most news stories about deaths from food allergies feature children or teenagers, maybe young adults in their twenties. You read about grieving parents. You rarely read about the 40-year-old who leaves behind a grieving spouse and kids.

Food allergies send a lot of people to the emergency room: 200,000 annually in the US alone according to FARE. Almost all are successfully treated. But people do die from anaphylaxis, roughly 63–99 each year in the US according to AAAAI.

So why are the fatalities we hear about so young?

Is it just demographics? Allergy prevalence has been increasing, after all, so kids are more likely to have food allergies than adults are.

Newsworthiness? A three-year-old dying at day care tugs at the heartstrings in a way that a 38-year-old dying from takeout doesn’t.

Is it onset age? A reaction is more likely to kill you if you don’t know about the allergy yet, don’t know you need to carry epinephrine, and don’t know that the warning signs mean “hospital now!” and not just “lie down and try to get through the asthma attack.” By the time you’re an adult, you’ve probably already encountered everything you might be allergic to, so you’re less likely to get that surprise first reaction. It happens – I’ve known people who developed shellfish allergies as adults, and I found my own nut and peanut allergies expanding their range in my early 20s – and there’s the Lone Star tick – but it’s less likely.

Are adults more careful? Teenagers take more risks. Children often have to rely on secondary caregivers who don’t always have the training or understanding that their parents do. And of course, the longer you deal with something, the more it becomes second nature. Is it that we’ve gotten better at avoiding triggers, keeping our medication on hand, and seeking treatment faster?

Are you more likely to have died of something else in the meantime? According to one NIH study, “Fatal food anaphylaxis for a food-allergic person is rarer than accidental death in the general population.” So the longer you live, as long as you’re taking precautions with the allergy, chances are that something else will kill you before the allergy can.

I suspect all of these are factors, but I do wonder how they balance.

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