People with potentially deadly nut allergies — and their parents — sometimes live in constant fear that a stray drop of peanut oil will be their undoing.
While food allergies can be serious and allergic reactions traumatic, a rigorous review in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy suggests that the fear of death may be overblown.
People with food allergies in the U.S. are more likely to be murdered than die from an allergic reaction, the authors conclude. Furthermore, they write, “fatal food anaphylaxis for a food-allergic person is rarer than accidental death in the general population.”
See the chart below, which shows the likelihood of various causes of death in the general population next to the likelihood of death from an allergic reaction in people with food allergies. The solid purple bar is the average risk; the dotted bar is the range of risk levels from the different studies:
The authors calculated the risk of death due to allergic reaction by averaging results from 13 studies that described 240 such deaths. Then they put that risk — which is greater in people 19 and younger but still extremely unlikely — into perspective.
One thing to keep in mind while looking at these charts is that the scale used makes causes of death with very different risks appear right next to each other. Something with a probability of 1 in 10,000 is 10 times likelier than something with a probability of 1 in 100,000.
The risk that a person will die due to a random accident is 100 times greater than the risk that a food-allergic person will die from a fatal allergic reaction. For people 19 and younger, their risk of death from a fatal allergic reaction is still 10 times lower than the risk of accidental death in the general population.
And while the risk of death from a peanut allergy (4.25 per million per year) is much greater than the risk of death from food allergies overall (1.81 per million per year), the risk of both is still very small.
When someone is having an allergic reaction, something the study authors acknowledge is “rapid and frightening,” quick intervention is crucial. But the risk of death from such a reaction adds little, the authors conclude, to a person’s general risk of death.
“This information should not belittle the concerns of food-allergic people and their families,” the authors emphasise, stressing the continued importance of appropriate labelling, allergen-avoidance, and strategies for when a reaction does occur.
They express hope though that the perspective provided by the study may offer “some reassurance to those affected by food allergy.”
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