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Dietary aide hopes to turn tragedy into lesson on food allergies

RED WING, Minn. — Many restaurants and grocery stores now offer a wide range of gluten- and dairy-free products for customers with food sensitivity or a dietary preference.

But for the thousands of Minnesotans living with food allergies, avoiding exposure to common ingredients is an everyday concern — as even a small amount of an allergen can trigger a deadly reaction.

Laura Kelly, a dietary aide with Mayo Clinic Health System, knows just how serious a food allergy can be. Her nephew, who had a severe dairy allergy, died last month at the age of 16 from complications after a restaurant cook inattentively made his breakfast with butter.

Kelly said she plans to use the tragedy to teach local schools and businesses about the potential dangers of food allergies.

“We’re trying to do something good out of it,” Kelly said, adding that she wants to keep families from having to go through a similar ordeal.

The most common food allergies are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, according to the Anaphylaxis and Food Allergy Association of Minnesota.

Although the seriousness of peanut allergies has become relatively well-known, Kelly said many people — some of her co-workers included — don’t realize that other foods can cause equally dangerous reactions.

The AFAA estimates that 2 percent of U.S. adults and 6 percent of children have food allergies, including 55,000 students in Minnesota.

The prevalence of food allergies among children increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Nearly 90 percent of schools nationwide now have at least one student with a food allergy.

Warning signs

Some food allergies — namely milk, egg and soy — developed as a child can be outgrown, but most tend to persist through adulthood and cannot be cured, according to Food Allergy Research & Education.

The national advocacy organization said avoiding contact with allergens and learning to spot early symptoms are important steps to prevent dangerous reactions.

Often younger children are unable to communicate that they are having an allergic reaction. FARE lists the following as possible phrases that a child may use:

— “My tongue is hot”

— “My tongue itches”

— “My mouth feels funny”

— “There’s a frog in my throat”

— “My lips feel tight”

— “My tongue feels heavy”

Additional food allergy resources and support information can be found at

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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