Worrying about everything comes with the territory when you become a mom, doesn’t it? You worry about your baby’s milestones and development, you check for their breathing a dozen times a night, and you even worry about buying just the right type of baby gear. But the real fear sets in when it’s time to introduce the first foods into a baby’s diet: What if freshly made food becomes the invisible enemy you never considered?
With 5.6 million children in America suffering from food allergies, parents’ worries are not unfounded. Navigating a world where food, or mere traces of it, can cause a potentially life-threatening reaction in your child is terrifying. Letting them out of your sight can leave you feeling anxious, scared, and perpetually stressed. And sending your child to school, the playground, or a birthday party can feel like you’re sitting on pins and needles.
With that in mind, and because just knowing where to look for answers can be confusing, Scary Mommy has consulted with nearly a dozen experts to answer parents’ most frequently asked questions about food allergies in babies, toddlers, kids, and teens. Using the American College of Asthma Allergy and Immunology’s (ACAAI) list of the most common food allergies — wheat, peanut, shellfish, egg, milk, soy, and tree nut allergies, among others — we’ve collated brief descriptions below with links to Scary Mommy’s comprehensive explainers for each allergy. Our hope is these will arm you with more information as you navigate your child’s allergy symptoms and treatments.
What are food allergies?
In the simplest terms, a food allergy presents when the body’s immune system identifies certain food as harmful to the body and causes a reaction to it. The reaction symptoms can range from uncomfortable to potentially life-threatening, which is why it’s so important to seek out a pediatric allergist if you suspect your child might be allergic to specific foods.
If your little one is diagnosed with food allergy, an allergist will work with your child and your family to come up with an action plan for treatment, testing, and even emergency protocol if one should come up.
How do I talk to other parents or party hosts about my child’s food allergy?
Here’s the thing, no one wants to be any trouble or come off as difficult during social occasions, But etiquette and niceties go out the window when it comes to your child’s health. Never feel uneasy making special requests — as long as not outside the realm of reason — at celebrations or family get togethers. If your child has playdates at a friend’s house, it’s not too much to ask the other parent to take your child’s food allergy into account when it comes to snacks and meals. You can even come up with a game plan together, to either keep the playdate at a neutral location or you can send specific snacks with your child.
The best course of action is to keep the conversation direct and to the point, and as far ahead of time as possible so the hosts can make all the necessary adjustments. Luckily, so many daycares and schools are already allergen-free environments, other parents proabably won’t see it as trouble at all. After all, you’re merely ensuring a safe space for your child.
However, you might find older relatives need a little bit of hand holding on this one. The CDC reports that the rate of food allergies in kids has increased a staggering 50 percent between 1991 and 2011, so people with adult children might need some more clarity on your child’s needs.
How do I talk to my kid about their food allergy?
Unlike us adults, children don’t always have the verbal maturity necessary to express how they feel physically or emotionally about their food allergy. This makes it all the more important to keep lines of communication open and talk to your kid about their food allergy in a simple age-appropriate way. No matter their age, however, you never want to scare them or downplay the seriousness of their medical needs. When speaking to younger kids, use age-appropriate talking points like the following:
— You have a food allergy, and anything with wheat can make you feel very sick. Use simple terms like “safe food’ and “unsafe food”.
— Don’t have food that has not been approved of by mommy or daddy.
— Tell us or your teacher if your tummy hurts, you don’t feel good, or feel funny.
— Teach them what foods will make them sick, pointing them out during a trip to the supermarket.
Parents can also tap into helpful resources like books, videos, games, apps, and music that have been tailored to help kids understand their food allergy. For example, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology has created a Mr. Nose-It-All character to help children understand their allergy and symptoms through play.
When people refer to as gluten allergy is actually an allergy to wheat. This allergic reaction usually occurs when your blood makes an allergic antibody to the protein in wheat. Luckily, skin and blood testing at an allergist’s office and under medical supervision can predict immediate life-threatening reactions to wheat.
If you suspect your child may be allergic or if they have been diagnosed to a wheat allergy, you should look out for symptoms that range from a rash, exacerbated eczema, hives, nausea, and vomiting. Some severe reactions can also manifest in trouble breathing and even anaphylaxis. Your child’s allergist should give you a list of foods to avoid, which will include all wheat products, as well as rye and barley. Currently, there is no FDA-approved way to treat a wheat allergy save for strict avoidance.
But don’t lose all hope, Mama. If your child was diagnosed with a wheat allergy, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Scary Mommy spoke with an allergist who noted the majority of kids do outgrow a wheat allergy. In fact, the ACAAI notes 65 percent of kids will outgrow a wheat allergy by the time they’re 12.
With daycares, schools, and mostly all children’s spaces now peanut and nut free facilities, there’s a lot of awareness around peanut allergies. The more awareness, the better parents and caregivers will be at spotting symptoms, which can vary greatly from patient to patient, according to experts. Reactions include, but are not limited to: rash, hives, nasal congestion, a runny nose, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. More severe reactions can lead to difficulty breathing, swelling of the lips or tongue, and anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis is the most serious allergic reaction to peanuts and usually happens right after exposure to the allergen. If your child experiences anaphylaxis, you have to administer an epinephrine shot right away and call 9-1-1 to get them to the ER right away.
Even though research of potential treatments for peanut allergies are currently being studied, nothing has been approved by the FDA and your only course of action is strict avoidance of the allergen. Your child’s allergist will help with testing and an plan of action.
With a shellfish allergy, the protein — or allergen — that triggers the response is marine animals in the shellfish category. This includes crustaceans and mollusks, such as crab, lobster, oysters, scallops, shrimp, squid, and more.
While shellfish allergy symptoms can vary from person to person and child to child, they can range from mild to severe and even life-threatening. They include, but are not limited to: hives, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, trouble breathing, swelling of the face, mouth, tongue, or throat, trouble swallowing, loss of consciousness, increased heart rate, and a drop in blood pressure. A reaction can also lead to anaphylaxis, which causes a swollen throat and a constricted airway, in which case you must administer an epinephrine shot and call 9-1-1 for immediate medical attention.
Like with all food allergies, there are currently no FDA-approved cures, so you have to be proactive in food avoidance and become an expert label-reader. Additionally, your child’s allergist will give you an extensive list of foods and products your child should avoid.
Your child’s allergist will test for an egg allergy either via a blood or skin test, something that should only be done under the watchful eye of a medical professional and never at home. The allergist will also provide you a list of all the foods your child should avoid. Unfortunately, we don’t have to tell you just how many different types of food contain eggs, but strict avoidance is your best bet right now.
If your child has been exposed to an allergen, symptoms of an egg allergy can resemble those of other allergies and include reactions such as rash, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and trouble breathing. More severe and life-threatening symptoms will call for an immediate injection of epinephrine, which parents and other caregivers should have access to and know how to administer.
While this must give you anxiety, Mama, the good news is that the oral immunotherapy research is currently being heavily researched for different food allergies. The idea being that a child would be exposed to a small dose of the allergen — in this case, a specific food with egg in it — under the regular supervision and guidance of a doctor. The doses are then incrementally increased over time in the hopes the patient’s tolerance also increases.
If you have cause to believe your child might be experiencing allergy symptoms after consuming milk, you can bring it up with your pediatrician as your first course of action. Always trust your instinct, Mama, and if you are concerned your child’s doctor can further direct you to a pediatric allergist, who can conduct skin or blood tests to investigate the cause of symptoms.
Speaking of symptoms, a milk allergy reaction can range from inconsistent poops or irregular formed poops; bloating, pain or fussiness; blood in stool; skin rashes; and colic, among others.
While this can sound scary, the good news is that the majority of children will outgrow their milk allergy during their childhood, some by age three or four. The ACAAI notes that about 80 percent of kids are likely to outgrow their milk allergy by age 16.
One of the reasons a food allergy can be so complicated to diagnose from the get go is because symptoms can vary so much from child to child. Symptoms can also vary by age, and per each reaction, only adding to the complexity. For babies, symptoms and reactions might present as fussiness or diarrhea. For children and teens, they could present as hives, vomiting, or diarrhea. Per the ACAAI, allergic reactions to soy can affect the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract and/or cardiovascular system.
Soy allergy symptoms at any age may include vomiting, stomach cramps, indigestion, diarrhea, wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, repetitive cough, tightness in the throat and/or hoarse voice, weak pulse, pale or blue skin coloring, hives, swelling (that may affect the tongue and/or lips), dizziness, and confusion.
As with all other food allergies, there is no FDA-approved cure and strict avoidance of the allergen is your course of action here. Your child’s allergist can take necessary steps with testing and will offer a comprehensive list of soy-containing foods and products to eschew.
If you’re wondering about the difference between a tree nut allergy and a peanut allergy, you’re not the only one. An allergic reaction to any food is the same at the core — an abnormal immune system response to an allergen. However, a tree nut allergy is a true “nut” allergy whereas a peanut allergy is not. That’s right, you guessed it: Peanuts aren’t actually nuts; they’re legumes. In fact, according to the ACAAI, between 25 to 40 percent of people who are allergic to peanuts also react to at least one nut.
So, how common are tree nut allergies? In short, they’re one of the most common food allergies in the world, with walnut being the most common tree nut allergy, followed by cashew and almond. Children with tree nut allergies must avoid foods containing tree nuts, as well as food that might have cross contaminated and products that may contain trace of the allergen. For example, many dentists use a fluoride varnish on teeth that contain resin tree sap material. This can cause a reaction in someone with a tree nut allergy so you should always provide your child’s full health history when visiting a doctor or dentist so they can take the proper precautions.
As with other allergies, there are currently no FDA-approved cures so strict avoidance is your best bet. Guidance from your child’s allergist will also help answer any ongoing questions you may have.
What are some resources for parents of children with food allergies?
At times, the support a parent gets from an allergist just doesn’t cut it. That’s when a larger online community of parents who’s children are also navigating a life with food allergies can offer that extra support. Between sharing resources, doctor recommendations, recipes, and more, parents might discover they’ve grown their village nearly overnight.
Food allergy podcasts to check out
Conversations From The World of Allergy — This official podcast from AAAAI is a must for parents navigating school, play, and their children’s allergies. With expert guests offering tips and advice, it’s not meant as individual medical advice, but as a guide. Per the podcast’s official website: “This podcast is not intended to provide any individual medical advice to our listeners. We do hope that our conversations provide evidence-based information.”
Exploring Food Allergy Families — This podcasts delves into the realities of living with food allergies and its impact on the physical, mental, and emotional health of all involved.