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Kids and Food Allergies: Facts, Tips, and Resources

If your child has a food allergy, they're not alone. It's estimated that up to 5 million children in the US have a food allergy. That's no fun for anyone, but you and your child can handle it together when you team up to learn the facts about food allergies along with tips for managing them.

Food Allergy Basics
A food allergy is a reaction of the body's immune system to something in a food or an ingredient in a food—usually a protein. Common symptoms include skin irritations such as rashes, hives, and eczema, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath.

Some people experience a more severe reaction called "anaphylaxis," which is a rare but potentially life-threatening condition in which several different parts of the body experience severe allergic reactions at the same time.  Symptoms usually appear rapidly and may include itching, hives, swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, lower blood pressure, and unconsciousness. Immediate medical attention is necessary when an anaphylactic reaction occurs. Standard emergency treatment often includes an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) to open up the airways and blood vessels.

The "Big 8" Allergen Foods
The most common allergen foods—often called the "Big 8"—are peanuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, crustacean shellfish, and tree nuts such as walnuts and almonds. These eight foods cause more than 90 percent of all food allergic reactions. Among children, allergy to milk and eggs are most common.  Many children can actually outgrow their food allergies by age five, if the allergic foods are removed from their diets for a few years.  Your doctor can tell you if it is safe to reintroduce a food, and when and how to do so.

It's now a whole lot easier to tell whether a food contains one of the eight major food allergens thanks to a federal law that went into effect in the United States on January 1, 2006. This law requires all food labels to declare in "plain English" the presence of these allergens, which helps you and your child avoid foods that contain these ingredients.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004:
Under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, the food label must declare the presence of a major food allergen in plain language on the ingredient list or via the word "Contains" followed by the name of the major food allergen (milk, wheat, or eggs for example); or as a parenthetical statement right after the ingredient in the list of ingredients, e.g., "albumin (egg)."  The type size can be no smaller than the type size used in the list of ingredients.

Refer here for more information.


Tips for Managing Food Allergy

  • Get a professional diagnosis. Don't try to diagnose a food allergy yourself.  If you suspect that your child has a food allergy, discuss this with your primary care physician. Your doctor can advise you accordingly and may refer you to a board-certified allergist for additional testing and treatment if needed.  You should work with your doctor and/or allergist to develop an action plan for managing the allergy through indicating which foods your child should avoid, and possibly prescribing medication, such as an antihistamine or, for severe reactions, self-injectable epinephrine (EpiPen® or Twinject®).  To find an allergist/immunologist in your area, go to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology Web site, or ask your primary care physician to refer you to one.

  • Pass around the plan. Give your child's food allergy action plan to people who regularly see your child, including relatives, caregivers and their friends' parents. You can download an action plan form from the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network Web site.  The form, which must be signed by your allergist, lists the symptoms of an allergic reaction and gives step-by-step instructions on how to treat it.

  • See an RD. A registered dietitian (RD) can help you and your child identify foods and ingredients to avoid, and develop an eating plan to ensure your child gets all the nutrients needed to grow and develop properly.  For example, if your child is allergic to milk, the RD will recommend other calcium-containing foods and beverages. To locate an RD near you, go the American Dietetic Association Web site.

  • Always read food labels. Always read food labels to see if the product contains any of the eight major allergens, or other ingredients you child is allergic to. Since food and beverage companies continually make improvements, read the label every time you purchase a product. Teach your child how to read labels, too.

  • Get support at school. Meet with staff at your child's school to review and distribute your child's food allergy action plan. At minimum, involve your child's primary teacher, the school nurse, and key food service staff. Make sure all supervisory staff your child sees during the school day and during after-school activities have a copy of the plan.  It is highly recommended that school administrators, teachers, and even food service staff are aware of the food allergy action plan in the absence of a school nurse. 

  • Be cafeteria cautious. Go over the school lunch menu with your child to identify foods to avoid. Work with food service staff to plan substitutions or pack a lunch for your child to take to school. Remind your child not to share or trade food with others and make sure they know which staff can help if they have questions about a food, or if they have a reaction to a food. Be sure your school food service staff has copies of the School Foodservice and Food Allergies information sheet and review it with them when you talk to them about your child's food allergies. 

  • Ask questions when eating out. Most life-threatening allergic reactions to foods occur when eating away from the home. Explain your child's situation and needs clearly to your host or food server—and teach your child to do the same when you're not with them. If necessary, ask to speak with the chef or manager. Some fast food restaurants provide a list of the ingredients in their menu items, as well as information on whether any of the eight major allergens are present.

  • Keep an allergy-safe kitchen. Rather than singling out your food-allergic child, prepare allergy-free recipes the whole family will enjoy. Visit the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network Web site for featured monthly recipes and a list of shopping and cooking resources.

  • Make peers "allergy allies." Encourage your child to talk openly with friends and classmates about their allergy, what foods they must avoid, and what could happen to them if they don't. Suggest that your child enlist their friends in helping them "stay on the alert" for foods in question so they won't get sick.

  • Most importantly, be ready for emergencies. Teach your child the possible symptoms of a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), such as difficulty breathing or swallowing, or tingling in the hands, feet, lips or scalp. If they experience symptoms after eating a food, make sure they know to immediately call 9-1-1 (or an ambulance) and, if prescribed by your allergist, use their medication to treat the reaction. If possible, have your child wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace that identifies the specific allergy. Every few months, "role play" an allergic reaction to make sure your child knows what to do.

For more information and resources on managing food allergies:

International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI)

The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN)

Food Allergy News for Kids

MedlinePlus

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN)


To learn about reading food labels:
Figuring Out Food Labels


Reviewed by the Kidnetic.com Scientific Advisory Panel, 2006