Healthbeat: Peanut-sniffing Dog

April 17, 2009 But these days a Portuguese water dog named Rock'O is her constant companion. Named after President Obama, he is one of just a few, new wave of service dogs and keeps his deathly allergic young pal away from the peanuts and peanut residue that lurk in unexpected places. He is trained to handle things that humans cannot. After his service-dog training, Rock'O spent months of peanut-sniffing training at the Florida Canine Academy, which trains bomb- and narcotics-sniffing dogs.

Rock'O has broadened Riley's world. During a recent mall visit, he sniffed a bowl of peanut-studded candy several feet away in a jewelry store and prevented Riley from going in, and he warned her away from an area in her own yard where peanut shells were on the ground, apparently carried there by squirrels. He also carries her emergency medicine in case of an accident.

Now Riley is confidently --and safely--getting out more. "She said the other day, 'I think I will be able to go to college now,' " says Mers, who has started a non-profit foundation, Angel Service Dogs so children with "hidden disabilities" such as severe allergies and seizures can afford specially trained animals to help them.

From alerting owners to an impending seizure to helping people with psychiatric or memory conditions (including Alzheimer's) stay stable and safe, service dogs are helping an ever-broadening array of people live more normal, independent lives, just as they have helped hearing, seeing- and mobility-impaired people for decades.

You can find out more about service dogs like Rock'O at the Thrive Allergy Expo this Saturday and Sunday at McCormick Place. You'll also learn about food allergies, respiratory and asthmatic issues, skin conditions and gluten intolerance at this first ever consumer expo that brings the best of all experts together in a family-friendly way. Thrive Expo will bring together the best physicians, authors, experts, companies, cooks, chefs and non-profits to offer the latest information, fun demos, and tasty samples in a fun family atmosphere.

The Thrive Allergy Expo will be held this Saturday, April 18, from 9 am to 6 pm; Sunday, April 19, from 9 am to 5 pm at Lakeside Center at McCormick Place Convention Center, HALL D-1, 2301 South Lakeshore Drive, Chicago. For more information, please visit or

Food Allergy Facts

  • Food allergy is a growing public health concern in the U.S.

  • 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies; that's one in 25 of 4 percent of the population

  • The incidence is highest in young children – one in 17 among those under the age of 3.

  • Food allergy is believed to be the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting, causing 50,000 emergency department visits each year in the US.

  • Approximately 150 to 200 deaths occur yearly in the U.S. as a result of food. Studies show a delay in getting help or administering epinephrine is believed to be a factor in fatal reactions.

  • Eight common foods cause nearly 90 percent of severe allergic reactions More than 160 foods have been identified as causing allergic reactions, but nearly 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions are caused by eight common foods including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, cashews), fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction.

  • You can acquire a food allergy at any age Most food allergies are acquired during childhood but the onset of a food allergy can happen at any age

  • Seafood allergies are twice as common as peanuts. While peanut allergies get a lot of attention, seafood allergies are twice as common and it's adults, particularly women, who are most at risk. The biggest culprits are shellfish, including shrimp, crab and lobster.

  • A food allergy is an immune response to a food that the body mistakenly thinks is harmful and then primes the body to react against it. Each time the person comes in contact with the allergen, his or her immune system launches an attack by releasing histamine and other powerful chemicals. The reaction can escalate into a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. For some people, tasting or even touching a certain food can trigger this reaction.

  • Symptoms of food allergies vary but reaction can worsen in minutes. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include hives, swelling of the throat, lips or tongue, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and/or gastrointestinal distress. Symptoms typically appear within minutes to two hours after the person has eaten the food to which he or she is allergic. Untreated, what seems like a mild reaction can quickly worsen in minutes.

  • Early administration of epinephrine is crucial to successfully treating analyactice reactions. Doctors prescribe a self-injectable device, such as EpiPen (Epinephrine) Auto-Injector, and should be carried at all times. Epinephrine can give someone the time they need to get to the hospital for more treatment and observation.

    Currently, there is no cure. So, the best defense is avoiding the food that causes the allergy.

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