By Jen Ashenfelter
Having a child with food allergies can be overwhelming at first, but there are resources and support organizations available to make life easier. My youngest son Christopher, who just turned 11, has food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and eggs which were diagnosed after he turned one year old. Let me begin by saying, fortunately, he has never experienced a severe reaction that required emergency medical attention. He developed slight wheezing and a bright red bottom covered with hives after eating a piece of bread with a thin spread of peanut butter. And so our adventure with specialists, allergy testing and strict food avoidance began.
A look at some food allergy facts and figures, and symptoms
According to information posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a food allergy is an abnormal reaction by the immune system to a food protein which results in an immediate release of chemicals such as histamine. Mild to severe symptoms to be aware of include:
- Hives, rash or eczema
- Itching, tingling in the mouth
- Swelling, including the tongue and throat
- Abdominal cramps, vomiting or diarrhea
- Coughing, wheezing and/or difficulty breathing
- Dizziness or loss of consciousness
- Anaphylaxis – a severe allergic reaction that can cause multiple, simultaneous symptoms including swelling of the tongue and throat, and difficulty breathing. This reaction can result in death.
Always seek immediate medical attention if you believe your child is experiencing an adverse reaction to a food, and consult with your pediatrician about finding a specialist to handle further testing for food allergies.
It is estimated that at least 15 million people in the United States have food allergies. About 4–6% of children under 18 have food allergies, with more boys than girls developing them. And these numbers seem to be rising each year. 90% of all reactions are caused by just eight different foods. The top food allergens include:
- Tree nuts including walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts and macadamia
- Shellfish including shrimp, crab and lobster
The glass is ½ full
Everyone’s experience with food allergies is going to be very different depending on which foods have to be eliminated from the diet and the level of sensitivity. Some children can experience a severe reaction to peanut dust in the air and others may only experience a reaction when the food is ingested. Honestly, it was very scary and frustrating for me as a mother at first. But that was 10 years ago. Ok, it will never “be easy” for a mother dealing with a new allergy, yet I think the resources and support have improved over the years. It helps to remain positive, proactive and open to working with people who are not familiar with food allergies.
For us, Christopher’s food allergies are manageable. Baking a birthday cake, holiday cookies and other special treats can be challenging, but I’ve found recipes that don’t include egg and nuts. (I’ll share a few of these recipes with my next post.) Halloween and Easter were tricky at first, but we’ve learned how to handle it positively. Luckily he’s grown up with these food allergies, so he’s used to the dietary restrictions and the taste of alternative recipes. He doesn’t know any differently, and the rest of the family made the transition without too much pain. We have an Epi-Pen on hand in case of an anaphylactic reaction, and his elementary school has procedures in place to handle students with food allergies including a peanut-free table in the cafeteria.
A little education goes a long way in creating a positive experience
I think the bigger challenge is educating Christopher and those around us about his food allergies, as well as making others feel comfortable about it. You cannot expect that everyone will automatically understand or cater to the child’s specific needs. In my opinion, handling the situation requires a delicate balance. Above all, you have to make sure your child is safe. Next, being prepared is important—a little homework goes a long way in creating a positive experience for everyone. And always, in age appropriate stages, teach your child about their food allergy and how to protect himself.
A food allergy can be a life-threatening situation so it’s important for family and friends to understand the situation before you arrive. It’s best to ask questions and discuss food choices before arriving at someone’s home. I’ve always found it helpful to either bring safe foods for Christopher to eat so our hosts would not have to worry or to politely suggest foods and products to serve or avoid. I also suggest calling a restaurant you plan on attending to discuss how the foods your child may choose are prepared or to preview a list of ingredients. I can honestly say that we’ve never had a bad experience where someone was unreceptive to my questions or requests…and when in doubt, always err on the side of caution.
The following are some helpful links that provide more information about food allergies:
The latest food allergy facts and statistics:
Vital information about food allergies in school settings:
Information from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology:
Tips from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: