Awareness of food allergies in children has become a hot topic all over the world, and for good reason: severe allergic reactions can come out of the blue, kick in quickly and pose serious health risks for your child.
The good news is there are several concrete things you can do to protect yourself and your family from potential allergic reactions to food.
Get informed because knowledge is power. To help you get started, here are the basics on food allergies in children.
What are food allergies?
Food allergies are severe reactions to food(s) that the body's immune system considers dangerous.
Symptoms of an allergic food reaction include:
- Skin reactions: hives, itching and/or eczema
- Swelling of the tongue and/or throat
- Gastrointestinal upset: cramps, diarrhea and/or vomiting
- Sinus problems: runny nose or red watery eyes
- Respiratory problems: wheezing, coughing or difficulty breathing
- Anaphylaxis in serious cases: drop in blood pressure, shock, loss of consciousness and even death.
Types of food allergies
The most common food allergens are:
- Tree nuts
- Sesame seeds
- Seafood (fish, crustaceans, shellfish)
- Sulphites (food additives)
How many people have food allergies?
Recent statistics on the prevalence of food allergies:
- The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 4-6% of children and 1-3% of adults worldwide suffer from food allergies
- Health Canada reported that as of 2012 approximately, 1.8 million Canadians may be affected by food allergies and that these numbers are increasing
- Of that population, about 300,000 Canadian children under 18 years old have food allergies
- And of that number, children under three are the most likely to develop a food allergy – that's close to 6% of all Canadian children.
Good news! On August 4, 2012, Health Canada enforced new food allergen labelling regulations strengthening labelling requirements in prepackaged foods.
- Official diagnosis is the first step if your child has an unusual reaction to a food
- If your doctor prescribes medication, follow instructions to the letter
- Educate your friends and family about your child's allergies and any medications
- Read product labels carefully and avoid all foods containing allergens
- This includes statements such as "may contain X" (where "X" is the allergen)
- Learn the different names of allergens: Health Canada has created a series of allergen pamphlets that list the many sources and derivations of the top 10 allergens
- If you don't recognize it, avoid it
- Identify your allergy and ask questions when eating at a restaurant or a friend's house
- MedicAlert identifiers can help in case of emergency
- Introduce new foods slowly — and one at a time
School and daycare
- Notify the school or daycare of your child's allergies
- Work with them to develop a prevention and allergy attack emergency plan
- Provide medications, instructions and written documentation from your doctor
- Include a photo of your child on all documentation
- Provide emergency contact information
- Review the school or daycare provider's own food allergy procedures
Educate your child
Depending on your child's age, this may have to wait for a bit. When it's time:
- Educate your child about food allergies and the importance of respecting them
- Train your child to become a "food label spy," teaching ingredients and names of allergens
- Tell your child not to share food, explaining why unknown foods are dangerous
- Encourage your child to talk openly about food allergies and to teach others
- Teach your child what to do in case of an allergy emergency