Allergies and Food Allergies: Myths, Facts and Mass Hysteria.

Image Copyright ©2019 Irina Kogan.

Last year at a swimming meet I was officiating for USA Swimming, I encountered two parents blocking my entry on my way to the pool bathroom and locker-room. The reasoning behind? A kid with “severe” latex allergies couldn’t be exposed to my rubber shoes in the bathroom or he would die. Which prompted me to laugh as I walked away. The mother of the child allegedly had a doctor’s note written out so she could get what would otherwise be a public bathroom, locked up just for only her child to use, while disrupting the lives of hundreds of people in the process, in what seems an obvious case of entitlement through attention seeking.

What the mother and everyone accommodating this ludicrous demand seemed to have missed which has become an unfortunate common practice in America, is that the child was wearing rubber shoes himself, he was also wearing a spandex bathing suit with latex embedded in the fiber, goggles with latex, everyone around the child, – swimmers, us officials, parents, the two parents at the door of the locker-room and coaches – were walking with rubber and latex shoes around and close to the kid, the 400+ swimmers at the meet were all wearing latex gear and swimsuits, and all that without mentioning the obvious elephant in the room, the pool contained trillions of particles of latex and rubber from all those 400+ kids swimming in it including those particles left behind by the allergic kid himself. If the kid was indeed allergic to latex as the mother claimed to the point he couldn’t be exposed to a pair of shoes in a locker room, he couldn’t have entered the natatorium without going into an anaphylactic shock, much less leave the pool alive. But out of fear of liability, everyone including the doctor that signed the note, accommodated the mother’s demands even though they made no absolute sense by any reasonable, chemically possible or medical standards. Doctors these days go along with irrational parent’s demands out of annoyance and frustration, or just to stop them from disrupting their busy schedules, but at what cost?… When are we finally going to start screaming the obvious “the emperor is naked” instead of pretending the emperor’s new robes are pretty?…

In psychology individuals that present this irrational and delusional behavior are referred to as suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy also known as hypochondria by proxy.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP) is a psychological disorder marked by attention-seeking behavior by a caregiver through those who are in their care — usually one or both parents of a child allegedly sick or with a medical condition. In the case of parents with MSP a marked behavioral pattern presents itself in the form of “over-protection” or exaggerated “concern” for the child’s health or condition. The caregiver — usually mom — has the tendency to exaggerate or lie about the symptoms the child is experiencing, can go as far as fire a doctor or nurse if they don’t agree with his or her demands in particular to the specific diagnostic they have set their minds to, can alter samples of urine or feces to get the attention she is seeking for the child, can induce symptoms through various means, such as poisoning, suffocating, starving, and causing infections, and in some really extreme cases even cause the death of the child.

People with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, don’t get diagnosed on time and might never seek the psychiatric help they desperately are in need, more times than not, putting their own children at high risk although giving the appearance of doing exactly the opposite.

For a parent of a kid with life threatening allergies, just the thought a particle could be the difference between life and death is terrifying, I get it. I not only suffer from a life threatening allergy to bell peppers including jalapeño peppers and all kinds of peppers, but I’m also the parent of a kid with severe, thankfully not life threatening allergies. Staying safe with my allergy is MY responsibility not anyone else.

But as parents, as much as we want to wrap our kids in bubble wrap and expect the world to accommodate our kid’s needs, the reality is, it isn’t possible. It is not only our obligation as parents and caregivers to make sure our kids are safe, we need to teach them how to live meaningful safe lives with their conditions. We need to make sure they understand from early on in life how to manage their allergies even if we’re not there. How to ask for help if they find themselves in real danger. And above all know the facts of their condition, what can and cannot make them sick and we need to be realistic, meaning we need to stop believing in “myths” out of fear of something might happen to them.

Just like in the case of this parent at the swimming meet, millions of parents abuse their child’s allergies to get preferential treatment going as far as threatening others if something happens to them.

Chances are your own kid’s school, due to liability, prevents anyone from even bringing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for fear of “airborne particles”, and as stupid as this sounds because it’s impossible to have airborne particles from a spreadable substance, this myth is found on every school in America. But peanut is not the only food that can cause severe life threatening allergies. I myself suffer from bell pepper allergies and eating a small portion could potentially send me to the hospital or even kill me from an anaphylactic shock, so how come we bell pepper allergic people don’t get the same preferential treatment?… These demands based on medical myths, and irrational fears, not only tend to disrupt the lives of those suffering from any kind of allergies, but inevitably disrupt the lives of everyone else around them.

I’m sure you’ve heard people claiming airborne particles of peanuts could kill them, and this is what our school system in America is based on. At least one classroom in every school in America has a peanut free zone sign at the door. Other types of allergens apparently aren’t as important, so the rest of us are sort of left out. These signs are not based on medical facts, but parental fear and irrational demands. In a country with more “sue-ready-lawyers” per capita than common sense and rational behavior, things get a bit out of control, but the US unfortunately isn’t the only country experiencing this trend of neurotic parents.

In a Ryanair flight in 2014 a Zimbabwean man was being accused of trying to kill four-year-old Fae Platten after the child suffered a severe allergic reaction. The man ignored the requests by the air stewardess to refrain from eating peanuts on the flight and opened a bag while sitting four rows behind the child. The child’s major allergic reaction almost killed her. The problem was the man didn’t cause the child’s anaphylactic shock. (1)

Although nuts and other food allergies are real and scary for parents and sufferers – feeling your throat closing up and unable to breath is a terrifying sensation – it can’t for practical purposes be transmitted through the air enough to cause these severe reactions, unless a giant cloud of peanut dust is heading your way while you have your mouth wide open, that is, which obviously wasn’t the case in the Ryanair flight.

Even though the man on the Ryanair flight opened the packet of peanuts against unfounded and non-factual repeated requests not to, him doing so didn’t put the child at any risk. After the incident scientists and allergy specialists denied the reaction the child had was caused by the peanut bag being opened during the flight. The same specialists proved the child must have had contact with the peanuts herself probably by mouth for that severe reaction to have taken place. Which begs the question, if the child was so allergic and the parents were so adamant on preventing anyone from opening a bag of peanuts, how did she get in close contact to peanuts?

According to The Peanut Institute touching, smelling, or inhaling airborne particles from peanuts does not cause a severe reaction. (Simonte SJ, et al. Relevance of casual contact with peanut butter in children with peanut allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol.. 2003 Jul:112 (1): 180-2.)

Smelling the aroma of peanuts is not the same as inhaling peanut particles that could potentially contain the allergenic protein. The aroma of peanuts comes from different compounds that cannot cause an allergic reaction. (2)

Environmental exposure seems to be a case of fear mongering when it comes to peanut dust and other food dust, rather than a real case scenario.

Data from 4 studies have shown that peanut butter vapors and smeared peanut butter on skin do not cause systemic reactions, that peanut can be abated from hands and surfaces using appropriate cleaning agents, and that shelled peanut dust does not become airborne. Studies have recently confirmed a dose of 1.5 mg of peanut protein would be generally tolerated by approximately 95% of the peanut-allergic population based on objective symptoms in challenge-based studies, affirming earlier research. Restrictive policies that focus on bans (or restricted presence in certain areas) of peanuts or peanut-containing products in environments such as schools or on commercial aircraft are not backed by evidence that such measures work, which may raise an uncomfortable clash between accommodations that lack any medical evidence of necessity and a desire to provide measures that comfort our patients. (3)

Even though eating bell peppers might send me to the hospital, smelling them won’t make me ill, in fact I love the smell of peppers. Touching them, however does give me a rash, but won’t affect my breathing, my lungs or my throat. Knowing the range of your allergic tolerance is key in remaining safe.

Same thing for those suffering from severe peanut allergies. According to the Peanut Institute, in one controlled study, 30 children with significant peanut allergy were exposed to peanut butter, which was either pressed on the skin for one minute, or the aroma was inhaled. Reddening or flaring of the skin occurred in about one third of the children, but none of the children in the study experienced a reaction either in their lungs or throughout their bodies. (4)

Yet mass hysteria when it comes to allergic reactions particularly to peanuts and especially in the school system or airplanes, go beyond rational thinking and are not backed by medical evidence.

We know and studies have shown our brains are more powerful than we give them credit for. Hypochondriacs can make themselves physically feel the symptoms of the illness they’re so convinced they have, even though test results show completely the opposite. (5)

We know clinical depression is caused by the individual, the experiences the individual has gone through or is going through and the cultural environment the individual lives in. Modern western societies are plagued by people with depression and anxiety in various levels, while other groups and societies do not experience it at all. Our society in America is more prone and has higher incidence of depression due to our society’s life style choices. For example, workers don’t have a break to have proper lunch like in other less stressful societies in Europe. In America vacation is not mandatory, our health system is definitely broken and to top it all up earnings do not compensate the cost of life. Only these can send anyone into an anxiety and depression state in no time. Spain and Italy for example have a 2 hour break for lunch on most schools and businesses, while in America workers and students have to chug down food as quickly as possible within their 20-30 minutes lunch break. This insignificant approach in lunch break makes a huge difference in our mental state.

There is no precise medical or biological reason for anxiety and depression, other than anecdotal reports, yet our health system has taken advantage of this and has created a billion dollar industry around a disease that in 98% of the cases is caused by the convoluted society we live in and not by our own biology. (6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

There have been cases of women believing to be pregnant even presenting abdomen enlargement. False pregnancy or phantom pregnancy, medically called Pseudocyesis, is the appearance of clinical or subclinical signs and symptoms associated with pregnancy when the person is not actually pregnant. Pseudocyesis is purely a psychological disorder. (11)

If our brain has so much power on our physical body can we cause our food allergic reactions even if we’re not in direct contact with the culprit?… Welcome individual and mass hysteria. Outbreaks of mystery illnesses, mass suicide, and mass hallucinations have been documented for centuries. Religious cults and groups have taken advantage of this aspect of our human brains since the dawn of time for either monetary gain or the most bizarre and twisted purposes. (12)

In November of 1978, while prepping for our family moving, I fell ill with E.Coli intestinal related infection, the first of many such infections I would suffer while growing up in a small town in the south of Venezuela. Because I fell so ill and I was just 10 years old, my parents decided to postpone our traveling plans. Little did I know, my parents, avid students and followers of every religious cult invented by mankind from Judaism all the way to Occultism, had plans to move the entire family to a secluded religious camp in Jonestown, the now famous town were the mass Christian Religious Massacre, namely Jonestown Massacre took place on Saturday November 18th, 1978. Had I not coincidentally fallen ill, I’m certain I and my entire family wouldn’t have made it out alive that place. (13)

Individual and Mass Hysteria, can affect anyone at any time for any reason, and the effects of such are vast and wide. What prompt some people to jump of and do just about anything without reasoning or thinking on the consequences just because an idiot says so, as a psychologist still intrigues me to this day. When individual hysteria kicks in, it has the tendency to spread out like wildfire, and in a contagious way affect others in a similar manner. It seems only a small portion of the population won’t be affected by mass hysteria and either try to reason with those acting in an irrational almost delusional behavior or leave the scene completely appalled by the sight.

According to Gary Small M.D. professor of psychiatry at UCLA. when stressed out, the mind can make the body sick, and in a group setting, it can really get out of control. Mass hysteria can strike anywhere, anytime. (14)

So it seems that when it comes to allergic reactions in particular to peanuts, a combination of MSP and mass hysteria has taken a hold of our society when it comes to school and airplanes, where most severe cases have taken place, even though the majority of those individuals suffering allergic reactions were never in direct contact with any peanut particles whatsoever but knew of peanuts in particular being present in the same room in the case of school settings or in a few seats away in an airplane.

As severe and life threatening allergic reactions can be, both the patients and the family must understand the facts of the condition, their personal level of tolerance to the allergen and diminish or completely remove the exaggeration of the condition for personal gain. Ask your doctor to run some tests so you know what your child’s or your tolerance level to the allergen is. Knowing your child will be safe even if another child is eating a peanut butter sandwich right next to him or her is important for your child’s and your own well being.

Understanding and learning to live with my life threatening allergy has been a life long lesson. What I can and cannot do, and what my personal tolerance to the allergen in my case peppers, is has being key in remaining safe for 50 years without disrupting the lives of others. In the end it’s my responsibility, not yours to stay safe.

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