A Family Approach to Food Allergies

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on December 11, 2018

You’ve just learned your child has a food allergy, and it’s causing stress for everyone in the family.

You all must be vigilant about which foods your child eats.

What’s more, you all need to be prepared for a possible emergency.

How can you manage such a challenge within your family?

A Growing Problem

An estimated four to six percent of U.S. children have a food allergy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Food allergies are also a growing health concern, the CDC stated. From 1997 to 2007, food allergies grew by 18 percent among U. S. children under 18.

What’s causing the problem? “That’s the $60,000 question,” said Laura Dziadzio, M.D., an allergist with Carilion Children’s Pediatric Allergy & Pulmonology. "There is no definitive answer."

“Allergy runs in families, but there are other factors that lead to the development of allergy,” she noted. 

For instance, children with severe asthma or an egg allergy have a higher risk of developing a peanut allergy. But it’s recently been shown that if they test negative to peanuts as an allergen in infancy, then introducing peanuts into their diets greatly cuts the risk of their developing the allergy. 

More than 160 foods are linked to allergic reactions, but most of the serious allergies are caused by only eight foods:

  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Soy
  • Milk
  • Wheat
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Crustacean shellfish

Managing Family Stress

“It can definitely be time-consuming and stressful to manage a child’s food allergy,” said Dr. Dziadzio. “The whole family may feel anxiety as a result.”

Reactions to food allergies can include:

  • A rash
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness

The biggest threat is that your child will suffer anaphylaxis, a medical emergency that causes the throat to swell, cutting off breathing or swallowing. It can be fatal if not treated immediately.

Where should parents start in dealing with a child’s food allergy?

“First, try to learn as much about the allergy as you can,” Dr. Dziadzio said. Because food allergies typically occur within a few minutes to an hour after eating, she advises parents to get a good history of the troubling reactions. 

“Next, get a diagnosis from an allergist with appropriate testing based on history,” she said.

Read food labels to spot potential allergens. By law, any foods containing the top eight allergens must say so on their label.   

You can also learn a lot from organizations such as FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), which post valuable information on their websites.

Then decide how you will handle foods your family may like that contain allergens. “Each family must determine the best way to do this,” said Dr. Dziadzio.

“Some families will choose to completely remove the food from the home,” she noted. “Others will teach everyone in the family safe foods for the child with food allergy, while keeping the allergen in the home.”

If your other children are old enough, and are comfortable doing so, they can help keep their brother or sister safe by telling you about any reactions they notice.

As time goes on, monitor your child for changes in his or her reactions. “Monitoring is important because as children grow, their tolerance for a particular food may change,” Dr. Dziadzio pointed out.

Some food allergies, like those to milk, eggs, soy and wheat, tend to be outgrown. Others such as allergies to nuts and seafood are outgrown less often.

With regular evaluation, your allergist can determine if your child no longer has an allergy and if a food can be safely reintroduced into the diet.

Have an Emergency Plan

It can be scary to imagine a child having an allergic reaction, but you and your family can prepare to cope with such an emergency.
 
Dr. Dziadzio tells parents:

• Make sure you or your child always has two auto-injector pens available. One may not work or be enough to manage anaphylaxis shock.
• See that your child wears a medical ID bracelet or necklace, particularly as they get older and may not be around people aware of the allergy
• Create a clear plan for what to do in an emergency and share it with your family
• Share as much information about the allergy with your other children as is suitable for their age. Encourage them to support their brother or sister.
• Tell your child’s teachers, and their friends’ parents, about the allergy, and how they can safely serve your child food

Day to Day

A food allergy doesn’t have to interfere with your family’s enjoyment of social activities. When you’re going to a party or event that involves food, bring your own, with enough to share.

Take these steps to help keep the whole family safe and happy:

• Learn to cook and make substitutions as needed. Use other ingredients that family members like, and think about involving all your children in baking to make it a fun family activity.
• Try allergen-free recipes. A good place to start is at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which shares thousands of free recipes.
• Bake ahead so you’ll have “safe” snacks available at home or on the road that everyone in the family can enjoy
• Avoid cross contact between foods, such as dipping a knife in peanut butter and then into a jelly jar
• Keep your countertops clean, since particles of food left there can also transmit allergens
• Teach your child to be careful when eating out and to explain his or her needs when in restaurants. Allergic reactions often happen when eating out.
• Plan more family activities that don’t center on food
• Be patient with your spouse and other children who may get angry or irritable about the need for precautions

Take Care of Yourself

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed at times when coping with a child’s food allergy.

Remember to take time for yourself, and don’t feel guilty about not being perfect.

It can help to practice these strategies:

• Identify negative thoughts and substitute positive ones. For instance, if you worry that you’re not doing enough to control your child’s allergy, write down all the positive steps you have taken.
• Practice meditation daily to calm yourself
• At stressful times, do deep breathing to relieve anxiety
• Maintain a strong social network who’ll be there for you and your family
• Seek new sources of help. Who else in your community can be a resource to your family?

Keep Things in Perspective 

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself and your family when you’re struggling to keep everyone happy and secure. 

But it helps to keep things in perspective. While food allergies do pose a challenge, most families are able to cope.

You’ve probably heard it before: Be grateful for all that your family does have, and don’t be afraid to lean on others when you need help.

There is one potential benefit. With patience and a willing attitude, learning to live with a child’s food allergy can bring your family even closer together. 

Parents, give yourselves a break. You're probably doing better than you think.