Understanding Food Allergies
According to Foodallergy.org, food allergies affect 1 in every 13 children, and nearly 40 percent of children with food allergies have a history of a severe reaction that can be life-threatening.
Any organization that includes child care needs to understand the risks associated with food allergies and how to properly respond to an emergency. Whether you provide snacks in your childcare area, require families to bring their own, or prohibit food altogether; it’s still important to be aware of children’s food allergies. Understanding allergies helps organizations that provide snacks to better plan, helps facilities that allow families to bring food in to better communicate with parents, and helps prepare kids clubs that prohibit outside food, just in case, because it’s not a guarantee no food ever makes it in.
Here are the top ten most frequently asked questions about allergies from foodallergy.org.
1. What is a food allergy? A food allergy is when your body’s immune system reacts to a food protein because it has mistaken that food protein as a threat. Symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.
- Apply to you: Wouldn’t it be super helpful to know ahead of time which child has an allergy, what it is to, and what the reaction might be?
2. What are the most common food allergens? More than 170 foods are known to cause food allergies, but eight foods account for 9 out of 10 reactions in the United States. They are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.
- Apply to you: While baby Johnny is probably not sneaking in shrimp, little Sally could easily have peanuts, or a snack made with wheat; and you just know Tommy is going to try to take a bite.
3. What is anaphylaxis? Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that comes on quickly and may cause death. Early use of an epinephrine auto-injector is the primary treatment for anaphylaxis. A complete list of the symptoms of anaphylaxis and more information are available at www.foodallergy.org/anaphylaxis.
- Apply to you: Do you have an epi-pen in your first aid kit? Is there a certain child whose parents put one in his bag just in case? Do you know when and how to use it?
4. What are the symptoms of a food allergy reaction? An allergic reaction to food can have many different symptoms, and a single person can experience different symptoms from one reaction to the next. Many reactions start with skin symptoms, like hives or a rash, but some do not. More serious symptoms like a drop in blood pressure and trouble breathing can be life-threatening. Make sure to have a plan prepared in case of an emergency. A complete list of symptoms of a food allergy reaction is available at foodallergy.org/symptoms.
- Apply to you: Knowing a child has an allergy makes it much easier to recognize the cause if you see symptoms. Plus this knowledge gives you an opportunity ahead of time to be prepared.
5. How much of a food allergen does it take to cause a reaction? Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction in some people with food allergies. Although ingestion is the primary cause of severe reactions, in some cases, skin contact or breathing in a food protein (e.g., steam from cooking shellfish) can cause symptoms.
- Apply to you: There’s that problem again with little Sally bringing a snack with peanuts into the room and the staff not knowing if other children have an allergy. Keep in mind, you may not even be aware mom left that snack in her bag.
6. How long does it take for a reaction to start after eating a food? Symptoms usually start as soon as a few minutes after eating a food and as long as two hours after. In some cases, after the first symptoms go away, a second wave of symptoms comes back one to four hours later (or sometimes even longer). This second wave is called a biphasic reaction. The risk of a biphasic reaction is why patients who have a severe reaction should stay at a hospital for four to six hours for observation.
- Apply to you: Make sure you 1) are aware an allergy exists 2) can quickly contact a parent 3) know how to handle initial treatment.
7. Who is most at risk for a severe allergic reaction to food? Anyone who has a food allergy can have a severe allergic reaction to food. However, having asthma puts you at higher risk. Fatal outcomes of anaphylaxis include a disproportionate number of teens and young adults, possibly because they take more risks with their food allergies (eating dangerously and delaying treatment).
- Apply to you: Anaphylaxis may be higher with teens as they take more risks, but think about how little ones like to put everything in their mouth and toddlers get their hands on everything.
8. Why are food allergies increasing? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported a 50 percent increase in the number of children with food allergies since the late 1990s. Many theories have been suggested as to why the number of people with food allergies is growing, but scientific research has not yet found the cause.
- Apply to you: This simply underscores the importance of being aware if any child has an allergy. Prevention is the best cure.
9. Is there a cure for food allergy? Not yet. Strict avoidance of the food allergen is the only way to prevent a reaction and an epinephrine auto-injector is the only medicine to stop a severe reaction called anaphylaxis.
- Apply to you: Again, why communication with parents and understanding treatment steps is so important.
10. Can a person outgrow their food allergies? Peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish allergies usually are life- long. Milk, egg, wheat and soy allergies usually begin in childhood and eventually may be outgrown.
- Apply to you: Hopefully kids will outgrow their allergies, but until then parents are entrusting their children to your care, so the focus must be on the here and now.
Awareness, communication, and planning are three key elements to protecting against allergies. Allergies are a part of life for many children and the threat needs to be taken seriously. Make sure your facility has a system in place to both track allergies and be able to easily locate and contact parents. A children’s check-in system can go a long way in helping. Beyond knowing which children are at risk, ensure all the staff know the allergy basics, understands the importance of being diligent, and is prepared to handle a situation should it arise.