HealthLinkBC File #100a, December 2010
Severe Food Allergies in Children
- What is a food allergy?
- What are the symptoms?
- How is a severe allergic reaction treated?
- What foods can cause a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis in children?
- What can I do to help avoid a reaction?
- What can I do when my child goes to school or child care?
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy occurs when the body mistakes a particular food as harmful. Foods that cause allergic reactions are called allergens. An allergic reaction is the body's immune system fighting back. The severe form of an allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis (anna-fill-axis). It can happen quickly and be life-threatening.
If you are not sure whether your child is at risk of a severe allergic reaction, ask your doctor. If your child has severe food allergies, ask your doctor to write an emergency plan that explains what to do in case of an allergic reaction. Children at risk of a severe food allergy should see an allergist. Preschool children should see a pediatric allergist.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction can vary and include any of the following:
- Skin: hives, swelling (including throat, tongue, lips or eyes), itching, warmth, redness, rash, pale skin or blue colour
- Breathing: wheezing, trouble breathing, cough, change of voice, throat tightness or chest tightness
- Stomach: vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, or diarrhea
- Other: weak pulse, passing out, feeling faint, trouble swallowing, runny nose, itchy watery eyes, sneezing, anxiety, or headache
A severe reaction can occur without hives. Symptoms can occur within minutes of eating or being exposed to the food, but they usually occur within 2 hours. Do not ignore early symptoms. When a reaction begins, it is important to respond right away.
How is a severe allergic reaction treated?
A severe allergic reaction should be treated with a medication called epinephrine (eh-puh-NEH-fren). Epinephrine helps reverse the symptoms of an allergic reaction and saves lives. Epinephrine comes in a pre-loaded syringe called an auto-injector. Do not hesitate to inject the epinephrine identified in the emergency plan, if you think the child is having symptoms of a severe allergic reaction. Epinephrine is not harmful if given unnecessarily to a child who does not need it.
Children with severe food allergies must always carry epinephrine or keep it near them. Young children might need an adult to carry it, such as a family member, child care provider or teacher. Consider having your child wear a MedicAlert® bracelet.
|Steps for treating a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis:
What foods can cause a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis in children?
The most common foods that can cause a severe allergic reaction include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts or walnuts, fish and shellfish, sesame seeds, soy and wheat.
What can I do to help avoid a reaction?
Children with severe food allergies must avoid even very small amounts of the food to which they are allergic. Steps you can take to lower the chance of a reaction include:
- Learn how to recognize allergens on food labels. Different words can be used to describe the same allergen on an ingredient list, such as the word whey in place of milk. For information about food allergens, visit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website at www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/labeti/allerg/allerge.shtml.
- Read food labels each time you shop and before serving foods. Ingredient lists can change from time to time. Do not give your child food from bulk bins or prepared foods without ingredient lists.
- Try new foods at home where you can watch your child. When away from home, your child should only eat foods brought from home or approved by you.
- Fully wash kitchen equipment and surfaces before preparing different foods.
- Serve each food using clean dishes and utensils. Place these on a clean napkin or clean place mat rather than directly on the table.
- Everyone should wash their hands before and after eating - help young children to wash their hands.
- Make sure your child is carrying epinephrine or it is near every time your child eats.
- Watch young children while they are eating.
- Children should not share or trade food or utensils, such as spoons, straws, cups or napkins.
- After meals and snacks, clean and sanitize the table and other objects on the tabletop.
- Teach your child not to put objects in his mouth, such as pencils.
Although the chance of an allergic reaction cannot be eliminated, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk to your child.
Preparing the school or child care facility
- Give the facility a copy of your child's emergency anaphylaxis plan, written by your doctor.
- Work with the staff to develop a care plan for your child.
- Give written consent for all staff to give your child epinephrine for a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis. Do not sign anything that releases the facility of responsibility if epinephrine is not given.
- Give the facility an epinephrine auto-injector for your child. Ask to keep it in a secure, unlocked place that is easy to access. Provide a new one before the expiry date.
- Update the facility on your child's allergies at the beginning of each school year or whenever your child's food allergies change.
Preparing your child
When your child is ready, you can help prepare your child to manage her severe food allergy.
- Teach your child what to do to help avoid a reaction.
- Teach your child to tell someone if she is exposed to an allergen or if she has a reaction or symptoms.
- Teach your child how to give herself the epinephrine auto-injector and to carry it at all times, such as in a waist pack. It should not be kept in a school locker.
- Your teen's friends should know about her food allergies, plus where the auto-injector is kept and how and when to use it.
For more information
- Visit www.allergysafecommunities.ca for information about managing anaphylaxis.
- Visit Anaphylaxis Canada www.anaphylaxis.ca
- Visit Allergy/Asthma Information www.aaia.ca
- Teens can visit www.whyriskit.ca
- Find BC Ministry of Education anaphylaxis resources at dsweb.bcsta.org/docushare/dsweb/View/Collection-7655
- See HealthLinkBC File #100c Allergy Safe Child Care Facilities
- Call 8-1-1 to speak with a registered dietitian about food allergies, or visit www.HealthLinkBC.ca/healthyeating/
For more HealthLinkBC File topics, visit www.HealthLinkBC.ca/healthfiles/ or your local public health unit.
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