Living with food allergies
By Gina Wieboldt
The very first time my toddler son ingested peanut butter he had an immediate reaction. His breathing became severely impaired and he was struggling. He was not choking. I was at a loss as to what was going on. He had a slight cold, but I knew that was not related. I realized suddenly that he had grabbed a peanut butter cracker from his older sister, and I could smell it on his breath. We rushed out the door to the doctor as fast as we could. The fear and feeling of helplessness that a parent has when his or her sweet child endures such a reaction is unnerving. Our path to navigating food allergies had begun a year before with the diagnosis of our daughter’s milk allergy, which took a little more detective work to finally get a diagnosis. Our fate was now sealed—we are a food allergy family.
The truth is that when it comes to allergic reactions, symptoms can vary from a seemingly benign runny nose, to something very serious, such as anaphylaxis. With more than 12 million people in the United States suffering from food allergies, this is a serious problem that affects many families. These numbers only continue to grow. Along with food allergies, there are numerous children being diagnosed each year with food sensitivities, as well as Celiac disease. Avoidance is the only way to completely prevent a reaction. The most common allergens are dairy, eggs, peanuts, soy, shellfish, tree nuts and wheat. It is not uncommon to find children who react severely to the various artificial colors and preservatives found in many processed foods.
Finding a good allergy specialist to diagnose and treat your child and his/her food allergy is very important. Your parental intuition plays a very big part when it comes to your child and any foods that you think might be causing a reaction. Symptoms usually occur within a few minutes to a few hours of eating an allergen, but this can vary from child to child. The most common symptoms are:
- Tingling or itching in the mouth
- Hives, itching or eczema
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body
- Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
If you find that your child is suffering from constant postnasal drip, chronic ear infections, stomachaches or headaches, it is a good idea to begin to monitor what they are eating, as these can be signs of a food allergy or sensitivity. If you think a food is the offender, simply pull that food out of the child’s diet for two to three weeks, then add it back in and notice any changes.
If your child has a food allergy/sensitivity, it is important that he or she understands what that diagnosis means. Avoidance of the offending allergen is crucial, and your child should be included in any discussions in regards to their condition. Do not make a dietary restriction seem like a bad thing. This is their reality, and you can make it completely fun and normal for them. Here are some tips to help you along the way:
- Prepare your child’s meals at home, in your kitchen, which in cases of a severe allergy should be made completely free of the offending food/allergen. Be very careful of cross-contamination.
- Be prepared for parties, school or play dates with allergen-free snacks or treats for your child.
- Make sure everyone who cares for your child, such as babysitters, parents of your child’s friends, family, teachers and the school nurse, knows of your child’s allergy and how to deal with a possible reaction. Most schools will now have a plan of action in place for this reason. If your school does not, this will be a great time for you to start implementing one.
- Read food labels carefully. If you are unsure about any food, do not risk it.
- Think outside the box – the snack box that is. Stop looking to prepackaged processed foods and always have safe fruits and vegetables ready for a quick snack.
- Review your child’s care plan with his or her doctor regularly. Each year, go over the various steps in case of a reaction. Update epinephrine prescriptions when they expire. For some children, administering an antihistamine is enough. For many others, the reaction is far more serious. This is for your doctor to decide with you.
Living with food allergies can be healthy and taste good, too. A little preparation goes a long way. There are so many great websites and cookbooks to find safe alternatives to your child’s favorite meals and snacks. Keep your kids involved in the kitchen, and let them have choices when it comes to what they eat. Keep the focus on all the amazing things they can enjoy. Show your little ones who can read how to understand food labels and what they need to look out for. They will never feel deprived if they are fed a constant diet of love and attention.
One of the most important tips I can personally give to you, from one parent to another, is to be involved. Get involved with your child’s school PTA. Volunteer to be a classroom parent and be available to help with in-class parties. Maintain a line of communication between yourself, your child’s teacher and the school nurse. Make sure all parents and staff who come in contact with your child have your contact information so that they can reach you easily if they need to.
Children with food allergies live full and rich lives—it just takes a little extra planning and preparation to get there.
A few great resources for you to check out:
Gina Wieboldt is a certified health coach, a stay-at-home mom and lover of crafts and cooking. She passionately helps moms create their own vision of a happy and healthy life through personalized health coaching programs. You can find her at www.goodlifehealthcoaching.com.
- Learning to Bake Allergen-Free, A Crash Course for Busy Parents on Baking without Wheat, Gluten, Dairy, Eggs, Soy or Nuts; by Colette Martin
- The Ultimate Allergy-Free Snack Cookbook; by Judi and Shari Zucker
- Allergy-Free Recipes for Kids; Publications International, Ltd.