It’s up to ALL of us to keep kids safe. Here are six important things all parents should know about food allergies.
What happened to open my eyes
A few summers ago we were on a family vacation, sharing our first dinner in a rented beach house, when something went terribly wrong.
A teenage family member had recently been diagnosed with a poultry allergy. The take-and-bake pizzas we’d made had no poultry on the ingredient lists, but after dinner, he started to feel itchy. He took some Benadryl, yet his lips began to swell. Then he said he was having trouble swallowing.
Our house was in a sleepy shore town. We had no idea where the nearest urgent care center or hospital might be. His parents called 911. Though they’d never had to use an EpiPen before, they had packed two. They gave him the first one and waited for the ambulance.
What I realized in that moment
The paramedics asked someone to stand at the end of the dark driveway, so they knew where to turn. My husband and I volunteered. As we waited for what seemed like too long for help to arrive, I was scared.
I knew that fear was something so many parents live with every single day as they send their kids off to school–that along with the usual worries about disappointments and heartbreaks, some parents also carry a fear that their child will have a life-threatening reaction to something as seemingly benign as a slice of pizza or a cookie. I already knew this. But in that moment, I felt it. (Happy ending: He was taken to the hospital and fully recovered.)
As a mom, I have empathy for parents who have children with food allergies. And as a dietitian, I understand how tricky it can all be: confusing food labels, complicated ingredient lists, risks of cross contact. But when a loved one has a severe allergic reaction right in front of you, it really hits home.
Why it matters to all of us
Even if your own child doesn’t have a food allergy, chances are one of their friends or family members does. One in every 13 children in the U.S. has a food allergy—that’s the equivalent of about two kids in every school classroom!
Even if you’re not personally touched by food allergies, your actions can impact families who are. Truth is, it’s up to all parents to understand the basics of food allergies so we can keep ALL children safe. Here’s what all parents should know about kids and food allergies:
1. What an allergic reaction looks like
Even if a child has never experienced symptoms before (or very mild symptoms) it can quickly turn into a severe reaction. So it’s key to take action at the first sign of allergy.
Symptoms of a milder allergic reaction include:
- redness of the skin
- itchy mouth or tongue
- stomach pain
- nausea and vomiting
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include:
- swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat
- troubling swallowing
- feeling faint
- chest pain
2. How to use an EpiPen
Epinephrine auto-injectors like EpiPens contain medicine that treat an allergic reaction, and they can save lives! If you have a child at your house with a food allergy, be sure the parents leave an EpiPen with you (or for older kids, that they’ve brought it themselves).
The pen is actually simple to use—and knowing how to use it will save precious time and stress in case of emergency. Take a few minutes to watch this quick video to learn how.
If you’re alone with someone having a reaction, give the pen first, then call 911. If you’re with others, have someone call 911 while you give the pen. Keep in mind that an EpiPen buys you time until the person can get treated. Even if a pen is given, the child still needs to go to the hospital because the reaction may return and they may need additional medicine.
3. How to keep kids safe
If you have a child with a food allergy in your care, make sure you know exactly what they’re allergic to and what they can and can’t have. Older kids will obviously be better at reading labels and speaking up, but young kids may not. When in doubt, always call the child’s parents–or ask in advance about what’s safe to have.
4. How to read a food label for allergies
The FDA requires that food manufacturers call out the major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybean (and starting next year, sesame). These must be shown on labels in one of two places:
- In parentheses following the name of the ingredient like this: “whey (milk)”
- Right after or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement like this: “Contains wheat, milk, and soy”
You may also see statements like “may contain wheat and soy” or “processed in a facility that also uses peanuts”. Those statements are meant to warn about cross-contact, which happens when a food or drink becomes contaminated by an allergen because they’re processed on the same equipment (or simply in the same area). Some people will food allergies avoid products with those warnings, while others don’t.
4. What your school & camp rules are
Schools, camps, and other places where kids gather have policies in place to protect kids. Before packing a lunch or snack–or sending in a treat for a birthday or class party–be sure you know whether there are restrictions around what you can pack or send. If there are, take them seriously.
5. How to include ALL kids
All kids should feel included and part of the fun. If you’re hosting an event, check with parents about food allergies and find out what you can provide–or give them advance notice so they can send a safe treat for their child (and don’t be offended if they’d rather bring something themselves!). If you’re getting goodies from a local bakery, ask them about any allergens they use in their facility. For class parties or Trick or Treat, use this list of 20 Treats That Are Free From Top Allergens. Or consider celebrating with nonfood items like stickers or other other tokens.
6. That families deserve understanding and empathy
All parents worry about their child’s safety. But imagine that your child’s life could be in danger by a small, accidental bite of the wrong food. So if you feel inconvenienced by your school’s peanut policy or annoyed by the mom asking for the ingredients in the cupcakes you brought to the party, put yourself in their shoes. Here’s a powerful essay my friend wrote about how it feels having a child with life-threatening food allergies: A Food Allergy Mom’s Call For Empathy