A parent is like a superhero. Think about it: They heal boo-boos with kisses, tuck in their youngsters at night after a bedtime story, and do their best to protect their child in every other way possible. But every superhero tale involves a villain lurking in the shadows—and for many parents today, that villain shows itself as the ever-present, never-loved food allergy.
A food allergy, simply put, happens when the body’s immune system releases certain chemicals that, in turn, trigger physical symptoms—like rashes and anaphylaxis (the swelling of the airways) —according to pediatric allergist Dr. Scott H. Sicherer. Typically, a person suspects an allergy when alarming symptoms occur shortly after eating certain foods. Sicherer, who’s a Mount Sinai Food Allergy Institute researcher and pediatrics professor and author of Food Allergies: A Complete Guide To Eating When Your Life Depends On It, advises that it’s crucial to discuss any and all suspicions with a doctor, because serious allergic reactions, like a small rash, can sometimes appear minor or benign at first glance.
“You would not want to mis-diagnose yourself,” Sicherer explains. “Doing so could be dangerous. A board-certified allergist is the type of expert who is best equipped to address a possible food allergy.” To confirm an allergy, an allergist can use skin-scratch tests or blood tests to gather additional information to contribute to a firm diagnosis. But those tests aren’t perfect, says Sicherer, so sometimes the allergist will do a supervised feeding with the suspected food.
One New York City mother, who wished to remain anonymous to protect her children’s identity, shares how her son’s severe eczema at 5 months old was the first sign of things to come. Now, at 7 years old, her son has been diagnosed with a veritable pantry
of food allergies: nuts, dairy, chocolate, sesame, egg, and apples. Though the child’s mother doesn’t know if there are any new answers to why kids acquire certain allergies, she says there’s at least an influx in awareness among parents—and everyone from health care providers to educators are trying their best to stay in the know.
For example, Wendy Levey, the director at the Epiphany Community Nursery School on the Upper East Side, trains all her staff in how to use an EpiPen. If a child is highly allergic and the parents and pediatrician have given permission, the staff is able to administer the treatment when necessary and know to call the parents immediately after. In addition, strategically placed lists of student allergies (like in areas where snacks are prepared and where medical supplies are stored) help keep teachers aware of dietary restrictions—and the school always keeps fruits and veggies, generally considered to be safe foods, in stock. To help parents, the even provide a list of food establishments in the city that serve up nut- and gluten-free products.
Awareness and training or not, the anxiety surrounding their child’s allergies is tough to shake amongst parents. “It’s scary as a parent,” says NYC mom Meghan Millowitz about her son and daughter’s respective food allergies. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”
But it’s not as difficult as you might think to make children aware of their allergies and to teach them how to speak up about them. Take Millowitz’s 8-year-old son, who has a nut allergy, and her 6-year-old daughter, who allergic to products with soy, legumes, peanuts, and wheat, as examples. Her son is actively involved in evaluating what he’s eating.
“When we’re in the grocery store, I will point out to [my son] what he can’t have, and quiz him through packaging,” Millowitz says. “Reese’s [for example] are easy because of the bright orange packaging.” Then, once her son became proficient in reading, Millowitz also has been able to encourage him to check a food’s ingredients; the disclaimers at the bottom of most boxes and bags are extremely helpful. And while her daughter might not be old enough to understand all the concepts behind allergies, she can at least tell people what she’s allergic to.
Additional advice that Sicherer offers is to avoid “cross contact” of safe with unsafe foods during meal preparation—making sure an allergen isn’t made close to or prepared with something a child is able to eat—and to order safe meals in restaurants. He adds that it’s also essential to be able to recognize allergic reactions and know when to seek medical assistance if needed, he says.
“Living with a food allergy is often anxiety-provoking, and I do counsel my patients about this, trying to balance safety with a good quality of life,” Sicherer says. Again, knowing your facts helps with minimizing your worries. You can be assured, for example, that severe reactions are unlikely to happen from casual exposure (such as skin exposure) compared to ingesting the food in question—so no need to panic if your child accidentally touches something so long as they wash their hands.
It’s also not only important to educate your kids about their limits, but to put the other adults they’re around in the loop too, particularly when they start going on play dates and joining regular afterschool activities.
“Most parents know that my son has a nut allergy, but he still knows to ask questions,”
Millowitz says. “And before he leaves [for play dates or activities] we still go over it. Not just once—but go over it, and over it again.”
So what’s the moral in this villain versus superhero tale? A parent’s best weapon is educating their children about allergies and their effects and about when to speak up. Perhaps the most positive aspect of food allergies is its ever-increasing prevalence in everyday life, with warnings on every label and even special aisles in the supermarket devoted to gluten-free or dairy-free products. With that said, it’s a comfort to know that perhaps, more awareness may lead to fewer accidents. At least, let’s cross our fingers.