Food allergies in children are an emerging epidemic, with a 50% rise in this condition in the last decade. However, food is an essential part of every culture both in terms of nutrition and socially, and if you are a parent to a child with an allergy, or suspected allergy, it can be difficult to get a handle on what to do if your child has a food allergy.
Here, in this issue of Expert Editions, Priyanka Talwar, author of You Can’t Always Tell!, a recently published children’s picture book about food allergies, which empowers children to manage their allergies by reinforcing a number of simple and effective safety strategies, talks about how we can spot and help to manage allergies as parents.
The occurrence of food allergies seem to be increasing at a startling rate amongst children – why do you think this is?
According to a study released by the National Institute for Clinical Health and Excellence in the UK, there has been a 500% increase in the number of children admitted to hospital with severe allergic reactions to food between 1990 and 2004. Although there is no clear answer as to why this is, there are two main theories:
The Hygiene Hypothesis
This suggests that the increasing cleanliness of our modern world is leaving our immune systems under-stimulated. With too few bacteria and viruses to fight, our body’s defences start to direct inappropriate responses against harmless things such as certain foods.
The Food We Eat
The increased consumption of processed and genetically modified foods and fewer fruit and vegetables in our diet are thought to be another contributing factor to the increase in allergies.
How can you tell if your child has a food allergy?
Symptoms of a food allergy include a red, itchy rash around the mouth, hives, swelling of the lips or eyes, nausea, tummy cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. In severe cases there may be swelling of the lips and tongue and difficulty breathing.
What steps need to be taken once you find out that your child has a food allergy?
As there is currently no cure for food allergies, complete avoidance of the problem food is the only solution.
Educate your child
It is never too early to begin this process. Through clear communication, you can help your child understand what it means to have a food allergy and how to stay safe.
Read every label, every time – ingredients in packaged food may change without warning.
Always carry an allergy kit containing emergency medication. Share your emergency treatment plan with those who care for your child. Ensure that your child’s school and caregivers know how to recognise and respond to an allergic reaction.
Again, education is key. Walk the talk by modelling good allergy management techniques for your child such as checking ingredient labels and informing restaurants about your child’s food allergies.
Schools and regular caregivers should be able to recognize and respond to an allergic reaction. Wearing medical identification can help alert others to your child’s allergy and help keep them safe. Always ensure that your child carries their allergy kit and emergency plan with them.
How can we, and those around us, demonstrate better empathy towards children with food allergies?
Respect requests from parents of children with allergies to avoid sending food containing a particular allergen to school even though this may sometimes be inconvenient.
Help raise awareness amongst children who don’t have allergies so that they are more sensitive towards friends with food allergies. And finally, find ways to interact and have fun which do not involve food.
Holidays seem to be one of the trickier times with children with allergies, what are your tips for handling this?
If you are eating out during the holidays, call ahead to enquire about the menu and alert the restaurant to your child’s food allergy to avoid last minute disappointment.
Prepare safe versions of your child’s favourite treats so that they do not feel excluded from the festivities. At family gatherings, ask people to wash their hands with soap and water (hand sanitizer does not work) after they eat certain foods. This is especially relevant when kissing and hugging children with allergies.
If you could only offer one piece of advice to a parent whose child has just been diagnosed with a food allergy it would be…
Take a deep breath. Having a child with a serious food allergy is life altering but it can be managed. Children watch their parents to understand how to react to stressful situations and may feel nervous and/or fearful themselves if they observe these feelings in their parents.
Although it is important that your child understand that food allergies are serious, it is equally important that you try to remain calm when discussing their allergies so you do not unnecessarily scare him or her. When you have a positive attitude toward food allergies, they will also positive.
Read previous issues in the Expert Editions series here.