What began as a joyful milestone, introducing my baby to his first few bites of banana, ended in a medical emergency. At six months old, my son was exclusively breastfed up to that point. Throughout that week, he enjoyed rice cereal as his very first solid food, and I couldn’t wait to see his reaction to some mushed up organic banana. The outcome was much different than what any parent would imagine.
My sweet baby boy’s reaction to those few banana bites was shocking — hives from head to toe, swollen, discolored lips and face, vomiting and anaphylaxis. Recognizing the signs of a severe allergic reaction, I gave him a dose of an infant’s antihistamine, which he could not keep down due to his swelling throat, and rushed him to the emergency room. Thankfully, prompt action and medical attention saved his life. A few more scary incidents and allergy tests later revealed he is not only severely allergic to bananas, but to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy and sesame seeds as well. For us, dealing with food allergies is a way of life, and it is not for the faint of heart; however, with education, awareness, vigilance and creativity in the kitchen, he is doing fine and enjoys a great variety of nutritious and delicious foods.
For a growing number of individuals and families, living with food allergies is an unfortunate and often frightening reality, one that is commonly misunderstood by those without the personal experience and awareness. As a “food allergy mom,” the common confusion between food allergies and food sensitivities by others is evident. While food allergies can range anywhere on the spectrum from mild to severe, the key difference is the former can be life-threatening and the latter is not. Not being taken seriously enough can feel frustrating and isolating for those living with food allergies. It takes patience and persistence to constantly clarify that a dairy or wheat allergy does not equate to a bellyache as do lactose-intolerance and gluten-sensitivity, for example. While food sensitivities are uncomfortable to live with and can cause health problems too, ingesting dairy or wheat, even a little, can cause anaphylaxis and cut off breathing for someone truly allergic to one or both of them. Any food allergy can be life-threatening depending on the severity of the allergy, how much is ingested and how quickly and appropriately the reaction is treated.
If you are affected by food allergies, a parent of a child with food allergies or know someone with them, read on for key food allergy facts and tips. Knowledge is power and there is all the hope in the world to live a healthy life, stay safe and still enjoy eating satisfying foods no matter how varied and severe your allergies may be.
WHAT IS A FOOD ALLERGY?
Food allergies occur from an abnormal immune response to certain proteins in specific foods. The symptoms are the body’s way of reacting against what it perceives as dangerous. Allergic reactions can be mild, moderate or severe. There is currently no cure for food allergies, but there are therapies and lifestyle choices to help those affected manage.
EIGHT MOST COMMON FOOD ALLERGIES
- Dairy: avoid foods that contain milk, milk powder, butter and cream. Cow’s milk is most commonly the source of milk allergies. Some with cow’s milk allergies may be able to have goat’s or sheep’s milk, but many cannot have these either. Look for alternative, plant-based milks, such as rice or oat, that do not conflict with other food allergies you may have like nuts or soy. If you do not have a nut or soy allergy, almond, cashew and soy milks are popular alternatives.
- Eggs: most people with an egg allergy are actually allergic to the egg whites rather than the yolks. Egg allergies are common in children and also among the most common food allergies that are eventually outgrown.
- Tree nuts: examples are almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, cashews and coconuts. Avoid any product that contains specific allergens, such as nut butters, nut milks and nut oils.
- Peanuts: peanut allergies can be fatal. Some people cannot even touch or inhale residue from peanuts. When eating out or in public, always let those who will be handling your food know of your allergy and that care must be taken to avoid cross-contamination with other foods. It is uncommon to outgrow a peanut allergy, and they often grow worse with every exposure.
- Shellfish: avoid shrimp, prawns, crayfish, lobster, squid and scallops.
- Wheat: a true wheat allergy is different from celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity, which both disrupt the digestive system, but are not life-threatening. A wheat allergy causes an abnormal immune response to one of the many proteins found in wheat.
- Soy: soy is found in many foods, so always be mindful to read the labels. Avoid soybeans (edamame), soy milk, soy sauce and tofu.
- Fish: fish allergies are common, but they may be confused with an adverse reaction to contaminated fish. It is common for fish allergies to develop later in life rather than in childhood.
- Less common allergies: sesame seeds, avocado, banana, stone fruits (example: peaches), kiwi, celery, tomato, garlic.
FOOD ALLERGY SYMPTOMS
If you or anyone in your care experiences any of the following, it is important to treat your symptoms immediately. Seek medical attention if the symptoms are severe:
- Itching, tingling in or around mouth
- Hives, itchy skin
- Swollen lips, face, tongue, throat
- Nasal congestion
- Stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea
- Vomiting (this is likely due to one’s throat swelling rather than gastrointestinal issues)
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting
- Anaphylaxis (look for constriction/tightening of the airways, lump in the throat, dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness)
Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening. Most people with food allergies carry an EpiPen (epinephrine), which can be used in emergencies to counteract severe allergic reactions/anaphylaxis. If you do use the EpiPen, you still need to go to the hospital. Antihistamines such as Benadryl can be used for mild or moderate reactions. The key is to make sure your airways are open with no difficulty breathing.
FOOD ALLERGY LIFE
Living with food allergies is truly a lifestyle all its own, not one anybody would choose. Most of the common food allergies are also extremely common foods that appear in many recipes, dishes and meals, which presents a challenge to work around.
Numerous people have multiple food allergies, which can lead to stress, fear, frustration and the feeling of being left out. It is especially hard for children to cope, and stressful for their parents. Something as simple as a school lunch becomes a complex undertaking to plan for each day — packing a safe lunch and making sure the child’s school is aware to keep him or her safe from cross-contamination by other children’s foods. My son cannot sit at the same table as any child with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I bake special dairy-free foods for class parties so he can still participate. Yet the feeling of being “different” and vulnerable never goes away. Talk to children about their fears and feelings and provide a listening ear. Anxiety is a very common side effect for both children and adults with food allergies.
There are many ways to safely add variety to your life with food allergies and/or help others around you with them by providing options. Learn about the many alternatives available such as dairy-free milks and ice creams and gluten-free breads and baked goods. It can be fun to get creative and learn to make vegan desserts if someone has a dairy and/or egg allergy. Most grocery stores and restaurants now offer plenty of options and alternatives for people with dietary restrictions. When eating out, make sure to let the restaurant know about any food allergies so they can help keep you and your family safe. It may all feel overwhelming, but the key is to first know what you can’t have so that you can better work with what you can have.
Written by Jaclyn King