A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Food Allergies

Discovering and managing your child’s food triggers is only part of the challenge. Learn how to keep them safe when you’re not around

It took one bite of a peanut butter cookie to initiate Kristen Brown into the “parents of kids with food allergies club” when her daughter Kylie was 18 months old.

“She immediately went into anaphylactic shock,” says Brown, who volunteers with the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). “It was horrible.”

One in 13 children in the United States has a food allergy, in which the body’s immune system mistakes a food protein as a threat it needs to attack. The symptoms of an allergic reaction usually happen within a few minutes to a couple of hours of exposure to the food. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, these symptoms may include:

  • Skin rashes, itching or hives
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, wheezing
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Feeling as if something awful is about to happen

Although they share some symptoms, an allergy is different from a food intolerance, when the body has difficulty digesting a food. A common example is lactose intolerance, the inability to properly digest the natural sugar found in milk and dairy products.

Equip Yourself
If you think your child has at least one food allergy, seeing an allergist is the first step. “It’s important to get a proper diagnosis,” says Scott H. Sicherer, MD, the author of Food Allergies: A Complete Guide to Eating When Your Life Depends on It. “You want to know that you’re avoiding the correct foods and not avoiding foods that are safe for [your child] to eat.”

After Brown’s daughter had an allergic reaction to peanuts, “we did full allergy testing and found out she was allergic to some other things as well, including tree nuts,” Brown says.

For most kids, not eating the problem food is enough. For others, cross contact can also trigger a reaction—from trace amounts on serving utensils, for example. Allergy testing pinpoints the level of sensitivity so your doctor can identify how strictly your child needs to avoid incidental contact with an allergen.

Empower Your Child
As kids get older, they begin to learn how to keep themselves safe. “In the younger years, it’s mostly the parent advocating for the child,” says Gina Clowes, director of education for FARE. That modeling paves the way for future independence.

Now that Kylie is 12 years old, “she’s a good advocate for herself,” Brown says. “She saw me do it for her for so long, and she’s learned that if she doesn’t speak up for herself, there are times when no one else can do it for her.”

The good news is, better treatments—and ultimately even a cure—may be on the way. For example, a treatment called oral immunotherapy is being tested, with supervised patients eating a small, steadily increasing amount of a trigger food, delivered as a commercially manufactured powder mixed into a safe food. Early clinical trials of oral immunotherapy have been effective in 70 to 80 percent of people.

“I would be surprised if there are not several options to make life safer for people with food allergies in the next five years,” Sicherer says.

Inform Others
What about when your child is at school or camp or the home of a friend or family member? “Living safely with a food allergy is like living in a minefield,” Sicherer says. “Every meal, every snack, every social event, every holiday—almost everything we do has to do with food.”

How you communicate is as important as the information you share, says Clowes, who has a son with food allergies. “That anxiety and terror we feel can be hard for others to deal with.”

It may be difficult for people to understand that exposure to even a small amount of an allergen can cause a reaction. Calm, clear instructions can help other adults honor your child’s specific needs. You can download an emergency care plan in English or Spanish at foodallergy.org/faap.

 

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