Food allergies can be terrifying. I know that from first-hand experience as a mama to a child with life-threatening food and environmental allergies. The fear of your child having a reaction and not knowing how to respond can be downright paralyzing. But don't panic! I have put together a step-by-step guide on how to deal with food allergy reactions, from mild symptoms to full-blown anaphylaxis. Read on for information on what to do if you experience a reaction, as well as what to carry with you in case of an emergency
What is a Food Allergy Reaction?
First, let's go over some basics. If you have a food allergy, it means that your body views a certain food protein as an invader and will produce antibodies to attack it. This can happen even if you've never had a reaction before. Some people are more sensitive than others and can have a reaction to even trace amounts of the allergen. When the allergen comes in contact with your body, it triggers an immune system response. This can cause a range of symptoms from mild (rash, hives, itching, swelling) to severe (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness). In severe cases of two or more symptoms, it can even be life-threatening. This is known as anaphylaxis.
There are many different signs and symptoms of a food allergy reaction, and they can range from mild to severe. Some people experience what's known as oral allergy syndrome, which causes itching and burning in the mouth and throat. Others may have gastrointestinal symptoms such as cramping, vomiting, or diarrhea. Skin reactions such as hives, itching, or swelling are also common. In the most severe cases, a person may experience difficulty breathing, wheezing, or a drop in blood pressure.
Let's dive into the different reactions and how to respond accordingly so we can practice until we're confident enough to handle emergencies in a calm (Ideally! I know it's not always realistic.) way.
If your child experiences a mild reaction, such as hives, itching, or swelling, it is important to remain calm. Fear, exercise, or even heat from a warm bath can turn a mild reaction into a severe one because it elevates the heart rate. It is important to stay calm not only to think clearly in emergency situations, but also to help your child keep his or her heart rate down. Check out the podcast episode, Well-Trained Emergency Mindset with Amanda Kranski, EMT, to get a refresher on how best to respond calmly and confidently to emergencies like food allergic reactions and anaphylaxis. To summarize Amanda's words, "Practice, practice, practice."
When your child is having a reaction, try to remove the allergen from your environment if possible. If you are outdoors, move away from the source of the allergen. If you are indoors, you can open a window or turn on a fan to ventilate the area. If the reaction is mild, I always pull out the trusted iPhone or iPad and do what I swore I'd never do when our son was born--screen time!
Seriously, screen time has saved our child's life because it suck him in and slows his heart rate down so his body can handle the food allergy reaction and stay calm. I may add cool rags to his body if he's hot, and encourage him to swish his mouth out with water and spit it to flush the allergen, if it was ingested. If the allergen is on his skin, I will wash the area with soap and water to remove the allergen. It's important to note that soap and water is the only way to effectively remove an allergen from the skin or surface areas. Disinfectant sprays and wipes do not remove allergen proteins. Commit it to memory: Only soap and water can remove an allergen from a surface or skin. If the allergen is around the eyes, for example if our son had tree nuts on his hands and rubbed his eyes after, be careful with the removal of those allergens. The eyes are a sensitive area. Though I interview all of the leading experts in pediatric food allergies and beyond, it's important that you know, I'm a mama, not a doctor. And the doctors I interview on the podcast in the digital course, Fear to Freedom, don't know your child and his or her specific situation. Please consult your child's physician to come up with the best way to respond to the different scenarios for your child.
If symptoms persist, over-the-counter antihistamines can be taken to help relieve discomfort. I prefer Cetirizine (Zyrtec) because it's non-drowsy. Always speak with your child's doctor or allergist to revise your Emergency Action Plan as often as you need to feel confident in your child's food allergy response plan. However, it is important to consult with a doctor before giving any medication to children. If symptoms are severe, or if you are concerned that they may progress to anaphylaxis, call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room.
If you or your child goes into anaphylactic shock, it is important to act quickly. Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction that can occur within minutes of exposure to an allergen. What qualifies as an anaphylactic reaction and how do we know when to inject?
Anaphylaxis is when you see two or more symptoms happening at the same time. This could include difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat or tongue, hives, runny nose, or a drop in blood pressure, to name a few. The podcast episode Epi First, Epi Fast with Red Sneakers for Oakley is helpful in trying to learn when to inject your child's epinephrine auto-injector.
If you have been prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen), use it immediately. Even if you are not sure if the reaction is severe enough to warrant it. A food allergy reaction cannot be reversed. It takes a lot of bravery to be a parent of a child with food allergies, because you have to be courageous enough to inject the epinephrine before it's too late. Fortunately for us as the parent or caregiver to a child with food allergies, and as Dr. Blair mentioned in Food Allergy Master Class, the worst thing that can happen if you properly inject your child with the auto-injector is your child will feel a pinch, a few seconds of stinging under his or her skin, and then they'll feel like they've had a couple cups of coffee. There have been zero fatalities reported from the proper use of epinephrine. Once the injection has been given, call 911 and head to the nearest emergency room, if that is in your emergency action plan that you developed with your child's allergist or physician.
If you or your child does not have an epinephrine auto-injector, call 911 immediately and begin administering CPR if necessary. Once emergency medical help arrives, they will be able to provide further treatment.
-If your child has a food allergy, it is important to always carry an epinephrine auto-injector. Epinephrine is the only medication that can reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis. Non-negotiable, even if the food allergy is "not major." Every reaction is different and no one can predict what your child's reaction may look like at the next exposure.
I've been on a car trip with my husband and son, one hour away from home, and realized we left our son's auto-injector at home. We turned around to go get it. Nothing is more important. In the grand scheme of life, your child's safety comes first. Meetings, parties, and busy schedules can wait.
-Always carry two auto-injectors on you. The first may not be enough to stop anaphylaxis. Also, the first auto-injector has the potential to backfire. It's always encouraged to carry two. I found a great carrying device for our son's Auvi-Q and share it in my Recommended Products shop.
-Make sure that everyone in your family knows how to use an epinephrine auto-injector and is aware of the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis. Sharing your Emergency Action Plan digitally or keeping it stored in a caregiver's wallet, home, or purse may also be helpful. We share both digital and hard copies based on the user's preference of digesting information.
-If you are eating out at a restaurant, make sure to inform your server of your allergy and ask about the ingredients in each dish. Monica Auslander Moreno, RDN, shares her story of marching into a restaurant kitchen to speak directly with the chef in the podcast episode Pediatric Nutrition and Food Allergies.
-When traveling, pack plenty of safe snacks so you're not caught in a place where your child is unsafe to eat.
Dealing with a food allergy can be scary, but it doesn't have to be. By being prepared and knowing what to do in case of a reaction, you can rest assured that you are ready to handle anything that comes your way. Practice, practice, practice. The more you know about your child's allergies and the more prepared you are, the less scary it will be. I promise.
If you have any questions or concerns, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. I'm always happy to chat about food allergies! You can find me on Instagram and join my private Facebook group of mamas who are going through the same thing you are. You are not alone.
You can also begin my pediatric food allergy course, Fear to Freedom, right now. The entire course is everything you'll need to know about food allergies from the leading experts in under 90 minutes. In 9 short modules, we cover:
- Using an Auto-Injector: Learn (and show your child) how to safely and effectively use an auto-injector—before you have to.
- Communication Allergic Reactions: Teach your child to recognize the symptoms of an allergic reaction and how to alert an adult.
- Processing Your Emotional Experience: Uncover the secret to finding your way forward when it feels like allergies have derailed your plans for good.
- Keeping it Simple: Demystify food labels and uncover frustration-free shopping and meal strategies for your whole family.
- Creating Healthy Environments: Optimize your child's health by making simple changes inside and outside your home.
- Discovering Oral Immunotherapy (OIT): Find food freedom, without compromising safety, through physician-monitored OIT.
- Developing Whole-Body Health: Consider the root causes of allergies and develop a holistic approach to supporting your family's health.
- Restoring Your Identity: Understand how to care for yourself, even as you keep your child safe and healthy.
Each module is under 10 minutes and meant to be taken quickly during your child's nap time or downtime. I know your life is busy and a pediatric food allergy course feels like it's the last thing you have time for. But your child needs you to do this for them. I created this course with you, the overwhelmed, anxious and busy mama advocate in mind. You can do this. You've got this! Visit the link below to get started.
You have got this, mama. I believe in you and I'm cheering for you.
PS- Check out this free resource I made for you, "10 Things I Wish Someone Told Me About My Child's Food Allergies." I created it with functional medicine doctor and food allergy mama, Dr. Gaby Safdieh.