By Mary Beth Wallace
In a world full of packaged foods and communal meals, living with a food allergy is no picnic. And unfortunately, studies show that food allergy cases have increased in the last few decades. In fact, in the United States, an allergic reaction to food sends someone to the emergency room every three minutes.
If you, or someone you know, has been diagnosed with a food allergy, it’s important to learn just what that means – as well as how to manage it.
What Is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy occurs when the immune system has an abnormal reaction to food. Reactions are unpredictable and range from mild (diarrhea, hives, nasal congestion) to severe (swelling, chest pain, loss of consciousness). Anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction comprising symptoms like nausea, shock, or difficulty breathing, can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms typically develop within a few minutes to an hour after consuming the allergen.
A common misconception is that food allergies are the same as food intolerances (for example, lactose intolerance). Yet there’s a major difference between the two: While food allergies can be life-threatening, reactions related to food intolerances are rarely dangerous, typically involving digestive distress like stomach pain or vomiting. Someone with a food intolerance can normally eat small amounts of the problem food without showing symptoms. Someone with a food allergy should not eat any amount of the allergen.
Managing a Food Allergy
Since there isn’t a cure, anyone with a food allergy must be vigilant in avoiding foods that spark a reaction. On top of that, an action plan approved by a medical professional should be developed in cases of emergency. The following modifications to your lifestyle and routine can help make a food allergy more manageable:
When diagnosed with a food allergy, education is essential for your own safety. Living with a food allergy means more than removing the specific allergen from your diet – you’ll need to learn how to treat reactions, how to communicate your allergy to others, and how to read food labels. You may want to join a support group in your community for insight and encouragement. Resources online, such as the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) website, can also be beneficial as you navigate a new normal.
Read every food label.
The law requires packaged food labels to list all ingredients, including allergens. An allergen may be included in the ingredient list using its common name, or it may be surrounded by parentheses. Major food allergens may also be called out following the word “Contains.” It’s important to read a product’s food label every time you buy it, even if you’ve been purchasing that product for years; manufacturers are known to swap out ingredients without warning.
Dine in confidence.
Dining outside the home becomes tricky with a food allergy, but don’t let that intimidate you. You can start by doing your research before a meal by calling ahead to ask questions or looking at the menu online. Then when you arrive at a dining establishment, explain your food allergy to the staff. Discuss food preparation with your server before choosing what to eat or drink, and don’t be embarrassed to make special requests. You should feel confident that the staff is accommodating your requests before enjoying a meal.
Planning for a possible allergic reaction will not only ease your mind, but also ensure swift treatment. You should always carry a copy of your action plan, either in your purse or wallet, as well as any medication. Having two doses will protect you in case one is expired or malfunctions. Depending on your case, you may want to wear a medical alert bracelet, which will help those around you in case of emergency.
A food allergy diagnosis will change your life. But with preparation and support from loved ones, this condition can be effectively managed.
Most Common Allergens:
*These foods are responsible for approximately 90% of all food allergies in the U.S.
For these local ladies, food allergies are a defining part of their lives. Learn from their experiences and expertise on managing allergies both in and outside the home.
“Managing my son’s severe peanut allergy day-to-day is a part of our family’s lifestyle. At school, Sam is happy and secure since the campus is nut-free. I also provide his own treats and snacks should someone bring something in for birthdays, and Sam’s friends often bring treats that are totally free of cross-contamination so that he won’t be excluded. Getting involved at school is a great way for me to manage Sam’s allergy and raise awareness of the severity.”
– Dorothy Caplenor
“Growing up in a Mexican household eating our traditional cuisine, it wasn’t until my late teens when I started eating out more with friends that I learned I am allergic to cashews and pistachios. I’ve since learned to carry non-drowsy Loratadine or Benadryl with me at all times, with a stash in my glove compartment, purse, gym bag, and kitchen. My EpiPens at home and in my car’s console are my backup and a last resort. One never plans to have an allergic reaction, and considering how pricey unplanned hospital visits can be, I’ve learned it’s better to have antihistamines stashed away, just in case!”
– Eva Castillo
“As a parent of a child with severe food allergies, you’re constantly worrying, reading labels while you grocery shop, wiping tables down when you go out to eat, and you always have safe snacks on hand for any party that may ‘pop’ up. When we do go out to eat, I have one child that usually can’t eat anything off the menu either due to cross-contamination or there is nothing to accommodate them. We pack a lunch box up and bring her food with us instead – this is her normal. Starting from an early age, we have taught our children to be aware of the potential threats of foods harmful to them.”
– Jade Baltimore
“My current ‘known’ food allergies include peanuts, shellfish, gluten, onion, peppers, raw cucumbers, and raw bananas. Because of my allergies, I’m forced to eat a very strict, controlled diet, and it’s changed the way I think about food: I can’t count on ‘grab and go’ options, I have to read every single food label, and I avoid cooking with any of my allergens. As a family, we focus on eating only non-GMO and organic products, and we don’t eat much fast food because cross-contamination of allergens isn’t worth the illness it causes me. This takes meal planning and preparation, but it’s the norm at our house.” HS