Food Allergies 101: A primer for parents - MetroFamily Magazine
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Food Allergies 101: A primer for parents

by Janine Boldrin

Reading Time: 4 minutes 

Susan Bagley knew something was terribly wrong as she carried her daughter into the emergency room. Bagley’s daughter was having trouble breathing and her face was swelling.

“My daughter’s food allergy was never suspected until the anaphylaxis episode,” recalls Bagley. “She had a history of Reactive Airway Disease (RAD) that was always treated as its own issue. Looking back, I realize now that her episodes could have been small exposures to the allergens. She was almost four (years old) when we found out and had the ‘perfect storm’ of allergens. She is the most allergic to almonds and cashews. One of each nut was consumed (that night).”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the mechanisms by which a person develops an allergy to specific foods are largely unknown. “Even with my professional background as a Registered Dietitian and almost two years of breastfeeding, and a cautious approach to feeding age-appropriate foods as it relates to allergens, I found myself dumbfounded that my child would even be remotely susceptible to a food allergy,” says Bagley, “But, it can happen.”

A Growing Problem

“Families often learn of a food allergy after a child’s first allergic reaction,” says Dr. Rita Malhotra-Kuczabski, M.D., author of Doctor Mom’s Prescription for Managing Food Allergies. Approximately 3 million U.S. children and teenagers under the age of 18 have a food or digestive allergy, an increase of 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to a report by the CDC.

“If a parent has suspicion that their child may have a food allergy they should seek attention from a board certified allergist immediately. If the child is allergic, it is imperative that an emergency action plan be formed, and appropriate medications be carried at all times,” says Dr. Malhotra-Kuczabski.

In the case of Bagley’s daughter, immediate medical attention was required because of the severity of her reaction to the allergen. Symptoms of anaphylaxis can appear within minutes to a few hours after eating a food. “Anaphylaxis is life threatening. Within seconds, my daughter’s facial extremities were swelling. It’s an emergency condition that needs to be addressed immediately,” recalls Bagley. “(My daughter) was treated at the emergency room. The next day she was seen by her primary care physician then referred out to an allergist.”

The Basics

According to The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), “a food allergy is a condition in which the immune system incorrectly identifies a food protein as a threat and attempts to protect the body against it by releasing chemicals into the blood. The release of these chemicals results in the symptoms of an allergic reaction.”

“Although food allergies typically develop during early childhood, they can arise later, even in adult years. Milk and egg tend to surface in young children, while fish and shellfish often manifest in older kids and adults,” says Dr. Malhotra-Kuczabski. “It’s worthy of mention that an individual can develop an allergy to a previously tolerated food.”

People who reacted mildly to a food in the past may suddenly start reacting more severely. A FAAN review of food allergy fatalities found that most of the people had never had a severe allergic reaction until the one that caused their death. Dr. Malhotra-Kuczabski says that there are often factors that serve as early warning signs of an allergic reaction. “Families with atopic histories (such as asthma, food or environmental allergies or eczema) are at heightened risk. Infants with eczema or atopic dermatitis may be showing you early signs of allergic disease. In addition, asthma and chronic runny nose can be manifestations of allergies,” says Dr. Malhotra-Kuczabski.

A Different World

Parents may feel overwhelmed when they find out that their child has a food allergy. Gone are the carefree days when a parent can drop a toddler off at a friend’s for a play date or at a nursery without worrying about an innocent snack that might make their child very sick. “Even trace amounts can cause a reaction in someone who is allergic,” said Jennifer Love, spokesperson for FAAN. “Skin contact or inhalation of protein (steam from cooking an allergen) can sometimes trigger it.”

“My daughter’s allergy is to tree nuts, peanuts and sesame. Because of her severity, we cannot even have products in the house that are processed in the same facility of the allergens,” says Bagley. “Challenges do arise when it comes to travel, going out to eat, birthday parties, but we do the best we can. We plan ahead, consult restaurants and speak to chefs, pack food, keep frozen cupcakes for birthday parties.

For the most part, people are understanding and want to help you the best that they can.” There is no cure for food allergies. Strict avoidance of the food a child is allergic to is the only means by which to prevent a reaction. Dr. Malhotra-Kuczabski suggests the following to parents and caregivers who are new to food allergies:

  • Become a vigilant and experienced label reader.

  • Contact manufacturers to inquire about shared food production lines and facilities.

  • Set clear rules about accepting any food without approval.

  • Have an emergency action plan.

  • Carry medications, wipes, soap and snacks at all times.

“Labeling laws are not perfect. There are significant loopholes. Becoming familiar with them is essential,” says Dr. Malhotra- Kuczabski.

Parents of young children are their child’s advocate when it comes to verbalizing the importance of avoidance of the allergen. Sometimes it’s difficult for people who are not familiar with food allergies to understand the implications of a child’s exposure to a food to which they are allergic. “Work with others to keep your child safe. It is important to work with school, camp, and childcare staff, as well as anyone else who interacts closely with or cares for your child, to discuss food allergy management and how an allergic reaction will be recognized and treated,” says Love.

Common Allergens & Symptoms

Eight types of food account for 90 percent of all food allergies:

  • Milk

  • Eggs

  • Peanuts

  • Tree nuts

  • Fish

  • Shellfish

  • Soy

  • Wheat

Allergy symptoms from a food allergy can range from mild to life-threatening. The most common symptoms include:

  • Hives

  • Itchy Rash

  • Swelling

  • Itching, tingling or swollen lips, tongue or mouth

  • Vomiting

  • Abdominal cramps

  • Diarrhea

Food allergies are more prevalent in children than adults. Most children with food allergies will outgrow the problem, but it can remain a lifelong issue.


  • Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network: Nonprofit organization devoted to educating the public about food allergies.

  • Kids With Food Allergies: Nonprofit food allergy organization providing information and support to families and caregivers.

  • Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America: Not-for-profit agency dedicated to improving the lives of people with allergies or asthma.

Janine Boldrin is a freelance writer and mother of three. Her daughter has a milk allergy.

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