A food allergy is when the immune system overreacts to a food protein that would normally be harmless, and can cause a wide range of different symptoms affecting skin, breathing, digestion and more. Food allergies are on the rise across the western world. Here in the UK an estimated 5-8% of children have at least one diagnosed food allergy. That’s one or two children in every school classroom. The most common food allergy in babies and young children is milk, but it is possible to be allergic to any food.
My youngest daughter had six food allergies as a baby. She’s now six years old and thankfully she has outgrown most of them, although she is still allergic to dairy and soya. Getting a diagnosis took a long time and it was very challenging for us as a family, as she was suffering daily with symptoms like diarrhoea, stomach pains, reflux, eczema and disturbed sleep. We are used to living with allergies now and it has become normal for us to check the ingredients of all the food we buy, and read allergen menus online before going out for a meal. But it was a steep learning curve when it was all new to us. Here are my top tips for coping with food allergies:
You need to have the right information to manage your child’s allergies. But too much information can actually make you feel more confused and overwhelmed than when you started. If you have questions, find out what you need to know, but don’t spend hours reading every website ever written about food allergies. That’s why I wrote my book, The Busy Parent’s Guide to Food Allergies, because it gives you all the information you need in easy, bite-size chunks.
Allergic reactions can be severe or mild, immediate or delayed, and can be different every time. So it’s not always easy to figure out what the trigger is for your child’s symptoms. Allergy testing can be helpful, but isn’t 100% reliable and doesn’t test for all types of allergies. If you suspect your child has food allergies, you should always speak to your doctor before you change your child’s diet.
Connect with other allergy parents either online or in person. It’s really great to have a group of people who just get what you’re going through and understand the challenges you are dealing with. It can really help you to feel less isolated. There are plenty of Facebook groups for allergy parents, and some face-to-face support groups are popping up around the UK too.
Doing some sort of awareness raising activity can feel really empowering, and it also helps to educate others about food allergies. This might be as simple as sharing information about food allergies with your friends on social media, you might do a talk at your child’s Brownies or Cubs group, or hold an allergy-friendly cake sale to raise money for an allergy charity.
Accept that anxiety is part of living with allergies. This is good because if you didn’t have any anxiety, you wouldn’t be motivated to check food labels or question waiters in restaurants! But you do need to make allowances for this and make sure you take plenty of time to relax and do things that make you feel good. If you feel that anxiety is taking over your life and interfering with day-to-day activities, ask for help. You can access therapy for anxiety on the NHS and in some areas you can even refer yourself without going to the GP first. Don’t suffer in silence.
Being responsible for a child with food allergies can involve a military-style level of planning and preparation for everyday events. You may want to reorganise your kitchen to keep safe and unsafe foods separate from each other. You’ll need to bring snacks with you everywhere you go, along with any emergency medication if your child needs it. And organising a meal out, get together with friends, or a holiday will require much more research and planning.
If you’re new to living with food allergies it can feel like there is so much to learn. But in a few months’ time it will all become second nature. You’ll soon be able to scan a food label for allergens in 5 seconds flat and decipher an allergen guide that looks more like a spreadsheet than a menu. Your kitchen will be stocked with allergy friendly foods and you’ll learn how to cook with free from ingredients. Food allergies doesn’t need to stop you or your child doing things you want to, you just have to do things a bit differently sometimes.
Author: Zoe T. Williams
Zoe T. Williams is passionate about supporting families with food allergies, having two daughters and a husband with multiple food allergies and intolerances. Right now, she is busy in the kitchen concocting new allergy-friendly recipes for her blog, My Allergy Kitchen. You can also follow Zoe on Instagram @myallergykitchen.