If you don’t have a family member with a food allergy, you most likely know someone who does. And, there is a good reason for this. According to Food Allergy Research Education (FARE), there are approximately 15 million food allergic people in the United States, and 6 million of those individuals are children. That means that approximately 1 in every 13 kids – or roughly 2 children in every American classroom – has a food allergy.
For moms with food allergic children, the stress of a food allergy diagnosis is significant. Food allergy parents must not only absorb the fact that something as innocent as food can be life-threatening for their children, but they must navigate daily landmines to keep their kids safe. This includes reading ingredients in everything that their children eat, being vigilant about the ever-present risk of cross-contamination and managing the emotional ramifications of allergies on their kiddos’ hearts.
At the same time, food allergies can be intimidating and scary for moms who don’t have food allergic kids of their own. Some may wonder how to safely feed other children at playdates and birthday parties, and they may feel confused about what their children should bring for snacks and lunch when food allergy kids are in their classes.
This week, May 13-19th is Food Allergy Awareness Week, and no matter where you fit on this spectrum, it’s the perfect time to learn more about food allergies and how they affect all of us.
What exactly is a food allergy?
A food allergy is simply an immune system response to a food that the body thinks is harmful. And, when a food allergic person ingests a food that the body deems as “dangerous,” an allergic reaction occurs. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, symptoms of an allergic reaction can range from mild (a few hives, itchy mouth) to severe (tightening throat, difficulty breathing) and can even result in a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis often involves more than one part of the body – like the skin, or gastrointestinal, respiratory and/or cardiovascular systems – and always requires the use of epinephrine (in the form of an autoinjector, like an EpiPen). Without proper treatment, anaphylaxis can be fatal. Any food can cause an allergic reaction, and for some people, just one bite of an allergic food can cause anaphlayxis.
The good news is that there is hope. Even as food allergy diagnoses continue to rise, there’s never been a more promising time for food allergy research. Scientists are working daily to develop life-changing therapies and treatments for food allergic individuals.
I’m a food allergy mom, and I’m feeling scared and overwhelmed – what should I do?
It is so important to know you are NOT alone. That is why the most important thing you can do is connect with other families like yours. In addition to a number of national support and advocacy groups, we are fortunate to have a wonderful local organization dedicated to helping food allergic kids families right here in metro-Atlanta. Food Allergy Kids of Atlanta (FAKA) not only provides school and community outreach, but also hosts support kid-friendly events and support group meetings for parents. You can connect with them at www.foodallergykidsatl.org or on Facebook at @foodallergykidsatl.
You may also find additional encouragement in the hands of a board certified allergist. Allergists are food allergy experts: they can help you develop food allergy plans for school and home, while providing insight regarding testing, research, and potential future therapies for your child. Your pediatrician and fellow food allergy parents are great resources when trying to find the best fit your family.
I don’t have a food allergic child, but I want to support other moms who do – how can I help?
The fact that you are even asking this question means the world to food allergy moms. And as one myself, I can tell you that the best thing you can do for a mom like me is love her child. Kids with food allergies are so often made to feel different in a world that incorporates food into so many daily activities. So, don’t be shy about asking food allergy moms what you can do to make their children feel safe and included. Whether that’s picking a snack that’s safe for everyone during playdates, or focusing on non-food activities during class parties, these “little” things can make a world of difference for the hearts of food allergic kids.
The other thing you can do is give food allergy moms some grace. I’ve had to administer an EpiPen twice, and I can tell you that watching your child struggle to breathe because of something they’ve eaten is one of the most terrifying experiences a parent can endure. So, while it may tempting to label food allergy moms as “over the top” about their child’s safety, remember that they are doing the same thing that any mom would if she’d had the same life experiences.
The bottom line? We are all in this together mamas! Happy Food Allergy Awareness Week to all of the food allergy kids out there and the mamas who love them so well.
For more information on food allergies, the following organizations are here to help! Food Allergy Research Education (FARE) www.foodallergy.org; Food Allergy Education & Anaphylactic Team (FAACT) www. Foodallergyawareness.org; Kids With Food Allergies (KFA) www.kidswithfoodallergies.org; The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) www.aaaai.org