More than 2 million children are allergic to food and, unfortunately, that number is only rising. So what is a parent to do? Try these everyday tips from Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a mom who has personal experience with this subject and wants to help others.
Food allergies 101
If your child doesn’t have a food allergy, there’s a good chance that at least one classmate does. That’s because food allergies have been increasing at an alarming rate over the past 10 years. More than 11 million Americans, including 2 million children, are food allergic. The number of kids with peanut allergy alone doubled between 1997 and 2002.
Every year, severe food allergies result in 30,000 emergency room visits. At least 150 people die from anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can kill or cause brain damage within minutes. We don’t yet have a cure. Strict avoidance of problem foods is the only way to prevent life-threatening reactions.
Unfortunately, many people still don’t have enough information about food allergy symptoms or how to prevent potentially deadly reactions. It isn’t enough to “just say no” to a PB&J sandwich. Dangerous trace amounts of the wrong food can hide on a fork that hasn’t been thoroughly washed, in a poorly labeled package of cookies, or in the touch or kiss of someone you love. Constant vigilance is a way of life.
Symptoms also can be insidious. Some children with food allergies have a severe reaction the first time they eat the wrong food (most common: peanuts, tree nuts, cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish and soy). But others have persistent, milder symptoms, such as skin rashes, nasal congestion, or intestinal problems, which can be signs of other conditions. That’s why it’s so important to see an allergist who is experienced in diagnosing and treating food allergies. Zachary, my son, didn’t have a severe reaction until age 2, when he was unintentionally exposed to peanuts outside our home. Luckily, by that time, we knew exactly how to handle the problem: immediate treatment with epinephrine — the only medication that can stop an anaphylactic reaction once it’s begun.
Learning to cope
Not surprisingly, studies have shown that life is often extremely stressful for children and families affected by severe food allergies. As a mother, my hopes and dreams are the same as any other parent’s: to raise a happy, healthy child who will become a confident, independent adult. But in the back of my mind, there’s always the fear that eating — a mundane activity for most people — could take my son’s life. Day to day, my primary objective is to make sure that everybody who leaves our apartment in the morning comes home safely at night.
Right now, Zachary is only 5-and-a-half years old, so it’s relatively easy to ensure that he’s protected. But as he gets older and begins to go out into the world on his own, he’ll have to take increasing responsibility for his own safety. So, until researchers find a cure, education will be key — for Zachary, for my husband and me, for friends and relatives, for staff at school and at camp. Knowledge makes life less stressful for all of us — for families who are affected by food allergies and for the people around us who are often called upon to accommodate our needs. Most importantly, knowledge saves lives.
With that in mind, here are five tips for coping with food allergies:
- “Allergy-proof” your home
When food shopping, read the label of every product you buy — even if you’ve purchased it many times before — to make sure that the manufacturer hasn’t changed ingredients without warning. When you stock your kitchen, clearly label the foods that your child can eat and keep allergy-free snacks on a separate shelf where he or she can reach them.
- Buy allergy-free foods
A growing number of companies specialize in allergy-free foods. These are great for food-allergic families and for friends and relatives who want to provide safe foods when they visit. You’ll find ready-made cakes and cookies, baking mixes, popcorn, gumballs, chocolates and more. Be sure to keep favorite treats handy for play dates or parties at school so your child won’t feel deprived. Check out Divvies, Cherrybrook Kitchen and Vermont Nut Free.
- Educate and inform your child's school
Work with them to develop food allergy management and emergency action plans, as well as access to all medications. Provide educational material, such as brochures, to help the staff, parents and classmates understand why certain procedures — such having as a peanut-free table in the lunchroom — are necessary.
- Have them learn how to self-administer
When your child is old enough, make sure he or she learns how to give him or herself epinephrine. Allow them to carry self-injectable epinephrine at all times, including at school (if state and local regulations permit, and your doctor and the school nurse approve). Encouraging food-allergic kids to wear medical alert identification and teaching them to read food labels are important, too.
- Write down your food allergies
Whenever you eat out, carry a food allergy restaurant card — this is a quick and easy way to inform your server about your child’s allergy. When traveling, bring it and your child’s emergency medical plan along with you.
Finally, if you’re the parent of a child with food allergies, remember that you’re not alone. The Food Allergy Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding a cure, is a great resource. In addition to funding research, FAI supports education programs to make schools, camps and the food industry safer, along with legislative initiatives to protect Americans with food allergies. Their Web site provides in-depth food allergy information, a list of local support groups as well as sample medical plans and restaurant cards in multiple languages. FAI helped our family cope at the time we needed it most. Today, by serving as a volunteer, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping to advance research that could save my son’s life —and the lives of millions of children like him.
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