More than 12 million Americans have food allergies, and an estimated three million are children, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). And one in every 17 children under the age of three has a food allergy.
For the parents of three-year-old McGregor resident Aaron Austin, the statistics are certainly true. He was diagnosed with food allergies when he was still a toddler.
“He started having asthma attacks, and when we went to the ER, the doctor told us he thought it was allergy-induced asthma and recommended he be tested,” Aaron’s mother, Mrs. Jessica Austin said. “We followed up with our regular doctor, who referred us to an allergist. We found out that he’s allergic to cats, oak, corn, peanuts and fresh tomatoes.”
For Aaron and so many other children in the U.S., food allergies not only cause life-threatening symptoms, but they can also make food-allergic children feel left out of the fun when they have a different menu than everyone else.
“I think sometimes it bothers him when other children can eat things he can’t, especially ice cream (most contain corn syrup),” Mrs. Austin said. “But, we try to prepare in advance when we are going somewhere. When we go to birthday parties we allow him to have a little cake, but have to avoid the ice cream and make up for it later.”
The Austin family also takes along potato chips to Mexican restaurants so Aaron won’t be tempted to eat the tortilla chips on the table that contain the corn he’s allergic to.
Scott & White allergist, Sandra A. McMahan, MD, said it’s important to let your child know that they are not out of the ordinary for having an allergy to a certain food.
“You could explain that some children wear glasses or hearing aids, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make friends or be a good friend. The food allergy is the same kind of thing. It’s a difference.”
“Try to make it sound common,” Dr. McMahan said. “You could explain that some children wear glasses or hearing aids, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make friends or be a good friend. The food allergy is the same kind of thing. It’s a difference.”
But sometimes, especially when the food-allergic child goes to school, it can be difficult for that child not to stand out.
Dr. McMahan suggests allowing the child to explain why they have to eat or avoid certain foods to their classmates, and even throw a class party where the other children can sample peanut-free or other types of allergy-free foods.
Another idea is for the child to have a special friend that looks out for dangerous foods and eats with the food-allergic child at lunch time.
FAAN offers a program called the Be a PAL: Protect A Life From Food Allergies, which is an educational awareness program designed to help parents and educators teach students what food allergies are and how to help their friends who have food allergies.
The PAL program teaches five simple steps kids can take to keep their classmates safe:
- Food allergies are serious. Don’t make jokes about them.
- Don’t share food with friends who have food allergies.
- Wash your hands after eating.
- Ask what your friends are allergic to, and help them avoid it.
- If a friend who has food allergies becomes ill, get help immediately!
Dr. McMahan also said it isn’t enough to rely on your child and their PAL to keep a food-allergy attack at bay.
“I always recommend that the parent should personally go to the school and speak to every adult that comes in contact with their child and let them know about the child’s allergies,” she said. “[Food allergies] are a life-threatening thing. It’s important enough to make an appointment to go in and talk to the teacher or the principal or the nurse about this.”
It is important, Dr. Mahan said to be aware of your child’s environment.
“I recommend that a parent provide the food for their child until they are old enough to know what to avoid,” she said.
This means packing your child’s lunch and providing snacks when they go to another child’s home for a play date.
“[Make sure] you explain why you’re bringing a snack so you’re not insulting the family.”
Mrs. Austin said be prepared for other parents not to understand or to be frustrated that you’re not allowing your child to eat certain foods.
“Be upfront with people and explain what’s going on,” she said. “The most important thing is to keep your child safe.”
For more information on how to keep your child safe and other tips on how to help your food-allergic child feel accepted, please visit the FAAN site.
How do you keep your food-allergic child safe and still having fun? Do you have any tips for other parents?