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What's your food allergy IQ?

August 11, 2014

When my daughter was younger, she started attending a Mom’s day out program. When we attended orientation, the school informed us that they are a “peanut-free” school. That means, when packing lunches, we are to avoid all peanut products for all of the children. This is my first foray into the world of school lunches, and I have to admit, I was a bit annoyed. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a staple food in our house. It is my go-to, in-a-hurry food choice. If my child isn’t allergic, shouldn’t I be able to give it to her?

After some thought, though, I have changed my mind about that. Food allergies affect one in every 25 children. In a school the size of my daughter’s, there are likely at least a few children suffering from a serious food allergy. About one-third of those will have a life-threatening reaction if exposed. Even more surprising? About one quarter of all life-threatening reactions occur in children who have not previously been diagnosed with an allergy. This means food allergies are a concern for all of us; it could happen in our family, too.

I started thinking about what I would do if I suddenly found myself the parent of a child with food allergies. I can only imagine the anxiety involved in sending a child off to school, entrusting their care to other people knowing that something so commonplace and seemingly harmless as food could be life-threatening for them. I’m not sure I could do it. And if I had to do it, I would certainly be comforted knowing that the school was taking every possible precaution to keep my child safe.

Putting myself in the place of a parent struggling with these issues has made it easier to accept sacrificing our precious peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It also made me realize I need to be prepared in case my child or a child that happens to be in my care is affected by food allergies.

Here are a few things all of us should know:

What exactly is a food allergy?

A food allergy is an abnormal response to food that is triggered by the body’s immune system. The tendency to develop food allergies is often inherited, so if you or your spouse has allergies, your child is more likely to have them, too. Any food can cause an allergic reaction, but serious reactions in children tend to be caused by a few common culprits:
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts (such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios)
  • milk
  • fish
  • shellfish
  • soy
  • eggs
  • wheat

Common signs and symptoms of food allergy:

Skin problems:
  • hives (itchy red spots that look similar to mosquito bites)
  • eczema (itchy skin rashes)
  • swelling
Breathing problems:
  • tingling sensation in the mouth
  • swelling of the tongue or throat
  • throat tightness
  • sneezing
  • wheezing
Stomach problems:
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal cramps
  • nausea
Circulation problems
  • pale skin
  • lightheadedness
  • loss of consciousness
Symptoms typically appear within a few minutes to two hours after exposure to a food allergen.

Know the difference between an allergy and an intolerance

Since food allergies can be a serious problem, we want to exercise the proper caution in avoiding them if necessary. But, incorrectly labeling a child as “allergic” to something when they truly aren’t can be harmful, too.

Children often have a sensitivity to certain foods, without being allergic to them. Since many of the common allergens are foods that can provide necessary nutrients for growing children, it is important to know the difference. For example, lactose intolerance is a digestive problem, while a milk allergy is an immune system problem. It is not necessary for children with lactose-intolerance to forgo all of the nutritional benefits of milk products. They can often consume milk in small amounts or take a supplement to help their body digest milk proteins. Milk-allergic children, however, may have a life-threatening reaction and must avoid milk completely.

Other common intolerances include: skin reactions related to additives such as dyes or preservatives, skin reactions related to the acid in tomatoes and citrus fruit and diarrhea caused by excess sugar intake with fruit juices.

Know what to do if it happens to you

If symptoms such as swelling of the face or throat, wheezing or difficulty breathing occur, call 911 or go to the emergency department for immediate medical care.

If you suspect your child has experienced an allergic reaction, contact your pediatrician. Your pediatrician can perform tests that will help determine whether your child has an allergy to certain foods. If your child does have an allergy, your pediatrician may refer you to an allergy specialist. Together, your pediatrician and allergy specialist will help guide the next steps in caring for your child.