What Parents Should Know
By Nora Heston Tarte
According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), 1 in every 13 children is affected by food allergies. Eight foods make up 90 percent of all reactions – milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Reactions can range from an itchy mouth to anaphylaxis, which is potentially deadly. Studies show that food allergies are on the rise – which is worrying for many parents – and there is a lot to learn about the condition. Arm yourself with knowledge of how to detect a potential food allergy as well as how to treat one. Knowing how to handle the situation, and understanding the reality of food allergies, can help parents feel better equipped in case of a reaction.
Understanding food allergies:
“Food allergies can present with a variety of symptoms,” says Dr. David Mendelson, an expert on sinus issues, allergies and food allergies at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital. These include irritability and behavioral issues, nasal congestion, rash, upset stomach, eczema and anaphylaxis type reactions, such as generalized rash and swelling of the mouth and throat. The latter could lead to airway obstruction, respiratory difficulties and even death.
What parents may not know, however, is that all food reactions are not allergies. For example, people who are lactose intolerant are not allergic to milk. Rather, their response is due to a deficiency of an enzyme to help break down lactose. “Many people may have sensitivities to certain foods and have local reactions,” Dr. Mendelson explains. However, he adds, these are not allergies.
How to treat:
“If someone has food allergies, the best treatment is avoidance,” Dr. Mendelson says. “Parents need to get very good at reading ingredients. If there is an allergy to corn, any product with corn syrup, corn starch, etc. should be avoided.”
The biggest concern is people who experience anaphylactic reactions to food. It is advised that these individuals always carry an epi-pen on them in case of a severe reaction. “The epi-pen will buy time in order to get the patient to the emergency room for more treatment,” Dr. Mendelson explains. Because symptoms of an allergic reaction can return after medication is administered, it is important to seek medical attention or continue to monitor the individual.
Another concern is cross-contamination, which occurs when an allergen is accidentally transferred from one food or surface to another. “This transfer may occur from food to food, from hands to food, from kitchen equipment to food or from a food contact surface to hands or food,” Dr. Zafar Quadir, a pediatrician at Banner Health Center in Chandler explains. “Cross-contamination can be prevented through hand washing, cleaning and proper food handling and storage.”
On the rise:
Prevalence of food allergies is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated that the number of kids with food allergies went up 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. One hypothesis, dubbed the “hygiene hypothesis,” states that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system. In laymen’s terms, avoiding interaction with specific foods for fear of a reaction could increase the likelihood that an allergy will develop. More research, however, is needed.
“Scientists are still trying to figure out why food allergies seem to be on the rise, especially in industrialized countries such as the United States,” Dr. Quadir says. “Are children not getting exposed to enough bacteria? Should they eat common allergens such as nuts and shellfish at an earlier age? One theory is that the Western diet has made people more susceptible to developing allergies and other illnesses.”
Tips for parents:
Parents who have children with food allergies can take a series of steps to promote avoidance and reduce possible interactions. In addition to participating in food allergy training for yourself, remember to inform all childcare providers, including substitute teachers, of allergies. It is important to have an open dialogue with anyone who cares for your child about potential food allergies or food intolerances.
If an epi-pen or other emergency medication has been prescribed, make sure you know where it is located at all times, and that it is easily accessible in an emergency. Always monitor what ingredients are in foods and make sure to check with others who have food allergies before serving dishes to them. Children who have food allergies should always be actively supervised while they are eating.
If you are responsible for serving food to children with food allergies or intolerances, utilize a menu that highlights foods that may cause a reaction. Follow the regular menu whenever possible and provide menus to parents and caregivers.