Employee & Community Health

Managing food allergies and summertime fare

8/7/2017 by Dr. Cristina Alcaraz

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It's summertime, and the living may be easy, but it's a little more complicated if you have a child with food allergies. Summer brings with it a host of food-centered situations from picnics, potlucks and graduation parties to treats after youth sports and trips to the county fair. 

Food allergies are becoming more widespread, but while there are lots of theories why this is happening, there's no one answer for the increase. Some experts believe it's because we're avoiding too many things in our environment. Whatever the cause, food allergies are real; allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, milk and eggs are most common. 

As a parent, here are some strategies you can use to manage your child's food allergies and help make sure they have a fun and reaction-free summer: 

  • Make sure your child's EpiPen® hasn't expired. You always should have two available, because in 20% of reactions, a second dose is needed. 
  • Involve your child sooner rather than later in understanding their allergy. Let them know why they need to be careful. It's surprising the number of two year olds with food allergies who grasp the importance of learning what a food has in it. 
  • As your child gets older, let them take responsibility for their allergy. Teach them how to use an EpiPen®, make sure they know where it is and let them know they can ask an adult to administer it. If children are more comfortable with their allergy, they'll be more independent and less fearful. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions at restaurants or family gatherings. Restaurants do a good job of answering allergy-related questions, which can include not only what is in the food, but also where it was prepared and what utensils were used. 
  • Bring back-up food to a picnic or potluck if you can't be sure about the other dishes that will be served. It may be more work for you, but it's the safest for avoiding exposure to foods that could trigger a reaction. 
  • Among people you know well, it's okay to do a little education. Talk to them about food preparation and the risk of cross-contamination. 
  • Ask for what you need. For example, at an ice-cream social, ask that the scoop be washed more thoroughly, not just swished in the water. 
  • With very small children, keep a cautious eye on them. If they shouldn't have whipped cream, keep it out of their reach. 
  • Seek support from other parents. They can help you find local allergy-friendly restaurants and share their strategies. 

Promising changes

An allergy to peanuts is the most troublesome, since children often outgrow allergies to milk and eggs. But there is some good news in the peanut-allergy arena. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has developed new guidelines for preventing peanut allergies, based on results from its trial, "Learning About Peanuts." Basically, the trial found that by exposing young children and babies early to peanuts, they end up not developing the allergy. If this is an area of interest for you, please talk with your provider at your next well-child visit. 

Dr. Cristina Alcaraz is a pediatric resident physician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.