How to Manage Your Child's Food Allergies
Few things generate as much anxiety in parents as food allergies. One minute your child is happily munching on a PB&J and the next you're on the way to the emergency room with a potentially life-threatening reaction.
Food allergies have risen in recent decades though no one is sure of the reasons. Severe allergies to peanuts have more than tripled since 1997, according to a study by food allergists at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital.
That is the bad news.
The good news is food allergies are often misdiagnosed or misunderstood. In surveys, as many as 30 percent of people say they suffer from allergies. However, a 2011 study from the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases shows only about one child in 20 has a food allergy. Eight foods account for 90 percent of all reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
While children's deaths from food allergies generate press and understandable sympathy, they are rare. Statistics show fewer than 20 people, including children, die annually from reactions to food, according to the CDC and other organizations. In another study, allergies to medication proved far more fatal than those to foods. Medications caused nearly 60 percent of allergy-related deaths while food reactions caused less than 7 percent of these fatalities.
Still, stay vigilant. Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a severe reaction and death.
Here are the six key facts you need to protect your children.
1. Understand how food allergies work
Some estimates suggest up to 30 percent of people think they have a food allergy while fewer than five percent actually do. The culprit? People have a misunderstanding of allergies. Feeling bad after eating something does not make you allergic. Lactose intolerance, acid reflux, and celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where the digestive system cannot process gluten, are not allergies. A food allergy is an immune system reaction to a protein the body interprets as harmful that occurs within minutes to an hour of eating the food. Symptoms include hives, itching, trouble breathing and anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that includes a rapid, weak pulse, skin rash, throat swelling, and low blood pressure.
2. Have your child tested for food allergies
Skin prick tests and blood tests are often used to diagnose allergies. They are highly sensitive and can yield misleading results. It's very rare for someone to be allergic to more than one or two foods. One answer is to ask your doctor to perform an oral challenge. In that test, a doctor monitors the child's reactions to small amounts of potential allergy-causing foods.
3. Ask your pediatrician if your child could outgrow their allergy
Most children outgrow allergies to milk, egg, soy, and wheat. Allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, which affect about half of one percent of people, tend to be lifelong. Because food allergies in children fade over time, have your child checked regularly to see if they are still allergic.
4. Ask your pediatrician about oral immunotherapy treatment
For decades, the only treatment was avoidance. Now, new research offers some promising leads. Multiple studies have shown that desensitizing people to peanut and milk allergies using something called oral immunotherapy. This process involves giving them minute doses of the offending protein daily, eventually allowing them to tolerate the food, so it is no longer dangerous.
5 Teach your children to monitor their diet safely
As your child grows older, he or she will be able to monitor his or her own safety. Explain how to read food labels. Show him how to ask waiters, chefs, and other food preparers about ingredients. Make him aware of how cross contamination happens, things like using the peanut butter knife in the jelly jar.
6. Listen to the scouts: Be prepared
Be ready. If your child has a food allergy, get him a medical alert bracelet or necklace. Have him carry an epinephrine auto-injector (Epi-Pen) and tell him to dial 911 immediately if contamination occurs. Even if he uses the injector, he still needs to go to the hospital.
Remember, past reactions to a type of food may not be an indicator of future reactions. Reactions to nut allergies for instance, can be much more severe during subsequent exposures. So don't take a chance. Be prepared.
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