If your family lives with food allergies, you’re far from alone. About 8 percent of children and 3 percent of adults have food allergies. Food allergies are an immune system response that occurs when someone with an allergy eats a particular food. Allergies can vary in severity from mild to severe, and it only takes a tiny bit of the problematic food to trigger an allergic reaction.
Food allergies typically last your entire life, so learning to live with them is important. This guide is particularly helpful for families who have children with allergies, but the following advice can also apply to anyone with food allergies. Families will need to take steps to make their homes safe for any family members with food allergies, and while learning to live with a food allergy may seem overwhelming at first, these allergies are manageable and many of these steps will soon seem second-nature.
If you suspect that you or a family member is developing an allergy, it is important to be diagnosed and treated by a doctor, especially since allergies can occur at varying degrees of severity. Allergies may get worse over time, so consult with a doctor regularly. The tips in this guide are suggestions, but are not medical advice.
What is a Food Allergy?
Food allergies are abnormal immune responses to certain foods. When someone with an allergy consumes certain foods, their body releases histamine in order to fight off the problematic foods that are seen as a threat. Histamine can affect the respiratory system, digestive tract, skin, heart, and even blood vessels, potentially leading to widespread and serious symptoms. Symptoms can occur immediately after consuming the problematic food, but can also arise two to four hours later.
Sometimes, food allergies are confused with a food intolerance. A food intolerance, which is sometimes called a food sensitivity, is a condition that occurs when someone has difficulty digesting a certain food. People with a food intolerance can experience gas, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, but the symptoms are not life-threatening. Food intolerances involve the digestive system, but food allergies involve the immune system and can be life-threatening.
Food allergies in adults are most commonly triggered by proteins contained in:
- Tree nuts
Children tend to have slightly different food allergies and are most often allergic to:
- Tree nuts
- Cow’s milk
Children often begin to experience allergies to food early on in their childhood, especially as toddlers and infants, but adults can also develop these allergies later in life. Sometimes, people may outgrow their allergies, and many children outgrow milk, soy, wheat, and egg allergies. However, this doesn’t always happen and often depends on the allergy and its severity; nut and shellfish allergies are unlikely to go away with time.
Certain risk factors can contribute to the likeliness of someone developing a food allergy. If asthma, eczema, allergies, or hives run in your family, the chances of you developing a food allergy are higher. Food allergies also frequently occur in conjunction with asthma, so if you already have asthma, it’s a good idea to be aware of your increased risk of developing a food allergy. People who are allergic to one food are also more likely to develop subsequent allergies to other foods.
The prevalence of food allergies is on the rise, and keeping children safe in social settings, like in schools or while at camps, is a growing concern. In response to this growing issue, schools and other facilities have already begun to implement improved product ingredient labels, increased food handling safety training, and the restriction on ingredients that are common allergy triggers.
Common Food Allergy Symptoms
Food allergies can result in many symptoms, including:
- A tingling or itchy mouth
- Itchy skin, hives, and eczema
- Swelling, often in the lips, tongue, throat, and face
- Wheezing and trouble breathing
- Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
Some people may have an anaphylactic reaction because of food allergies. Anaphylaxis is life-threatening and results in symptoms including:
- Tightening of the airways
- Swelling in the throat or the feeling of a lump in your throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe blood pressure drop
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
A person who is experiencing anaphylaxis needs immediate medical treatment. If left untreated, the person can go into a coma or die.
If you experience any of the above symptoms, you may have a food allergy. It’s important to see a doctor for an official diagnosis. Your doctor will order allergy testing to confirm the presence of an allergy and the specific foods that you’re allergic to. Your doctor may also prescribe an EpiPen or other medication to take in case you accidentally consume the food that you’re allergic to.
Until you see a doctor, avoid eating the food that you believe you may be allergic to. Even if you have a mild initial reaction, that reaction can get worse if you eat the food again.
Stock an Allergy Safe Kitchen
Food allergy safety starts with the foods that you buy and store in your home kitchen. Some families completely eliminate allergens from their homes when a family member has severe allergies. Other families choose to still stock those ingredients when a family member has a less severe allergy. The choice that’s right for your family will depend on the severity of the food allergy in your family, the necessity of the food, and likely the age of the person with the allergy —young children who don’t understand allergies may be more likely to accidentally ingest an allergen than older children or adults.
The following steps can help you to create an allergy-safe kitchen.
- Determine Safe and Unsafe Food: Start by determining which foods contain the allergen. This can take some time and may not be readily apparent, especially when the allergen is soy or wheat. Learning to read food labels can help you to identify foods containing the allergen. Be sure to always check the food label again if you buy the same food in a different flavor, or if that food has been reformulated, since new ingredients may have been added.
- Develop Labeling System: Develop a labeling system to make it easy for all of your family members to tell at a glance which foods are allergy-safe and which are not. Using stickers or other labels can help with this process. If you have younger children who can’t read, use a colored label system instead of or in conjunction with written labels.
- Separate Safe and Unsafe Foods: Create designated shelves for safe and unsafe foods in both your fridge and pantry. Educate your kids about which foods are safe and why the unsafe foods need to be avoided, but also keep unsafe foods out of the reach of young children.
- Avoid Cross-Contamination: Cross-contamination is a concern, especially if someone in your family has a severe allergy. In this case, it’s important to make sure that safe and unsafe foods don’t come into contact, whether it’s from placing both on the same plate or counter, or using the same utensils when preparing different dishes. Non-allergy sufferers will need to wash their hands before they handle safe foods as well as after they handle or consume unsafe foods.
Allergy Safe Cooking Tips
While it’s easiest to cook safely by simply keeping unsafe foods out of the home, that isn’t always practical, and it may not be necessary if a family member has a milder food allergy. These steps can help you to avoid cross-contamination while cooking:
- Wash Your Hands: One of the most important steps in preventing cross-contamination is taking the time to wash your hands with warm water and soap, and to do this thoroughly. Wash your hands at multiple points during food preparation. Get into the habit of washing your hands before and after you handle both safe and unsafe foods.
- Clean Surfaces, Utensils, Cookware: You’ll also need to take the time to thoroughly clean kitchen surfaces, utensils, and cookware, especially if you’ve been cooking unsafe foods. Use soap and water or commercial cleaners to clean the surfaces. To increase the safety of your kitchen, invest in separate utensils and cookware for safe foods, and ideally prepare safe and unsafe foods in separate areas of your kitchen.
- Establish Cooking Order: When preparing safe and unsafe foods for a meal, the order that you cook in matters. Always start with the safe foods and finish working with those safe foods before you start preparing unsafe foods. Clearly label dishes or containers so that there’s no question about which foods are safe and which are unsafe.
- Consider Airborne Contamination: Cross-contamination can be airborne when you’re cooking, especially when there’s the potential for splatter when boiling or sauteing foods. It’s best to keep the allergy sufferer out of the kitchen while you’re preparing unsafe foods. Make sure that any safe food dishes that have been prepared are covered and out of the way before boiling or sauteing unsafe food dishes.
Educate Family Members on Allergy Safety
When a family member has a food allergy, the entire family needs to learn about allergy safety. Innocent mistakes, like not washing your hands between eating an unsafe food and a safe food, or mixing up food labels could trigger an allergic reaction. The more your whole family understands about allergies, the better everyone can work together to keep the allergy sufferer safe. Make sure that all of your family members understand the rules in your home and just why they’re in place.
- Develop Food Allergy Rules: Work together as a family to create rules, and make sure that everyone, particularly your young children, understands those rules. When creating your home’s rules, think about including the following:
- Rules regarding where food should be consumed. Do you want to keep food to the kitchen or dining room only? Should unsafe foods only be consumed in a particular area of the home?
- When family members must wash their hands, such as before and after eating, and when in the food preparation process the hand washing should happen.
- How the kitchen labeling system works and guidelines for consuming unsafe foods in the home.
- Create Food Allergy Plan: In case an allergen is accidentally consumed, you’ll need a plan in place. The details of your plan will likely depend on the allergy and its severity, but should involve a trip to the doctor or the hospital for an evaluation and monitoring if allergies are moderate to severe. Create a plan for handling allergen consumption at home, and a separate plan for handling consumption at school if the person with allergies is school-aged.
- Talk to Children: Talk with your children on multiple occasions about food allergy safety and its importance within your family. Make sure that your children understand your home’s rules, and revisit these rules regularly, especially with younger children. Talk with children about what they should do in an emergency, and train everyone in the family on how to use an EpiPen, if the person with allergies has one. At the same time, make it easy for your children to succeed by keeping unsafe foods out of their reach as a double safety measure.
- Talk to Extended Family and Friends: Talk to other people in your life, especially those who come to your home, and make sure that they understand the allergies in your family. Give your friends and extended family members some tips, like asking them not to bring foods with allergens in them to your home, and stressing the importance of hand washing.
Allergy Safety On-the-Go
While this guide is primarily focused on allergy safety tips for within the home, it’s also important to have plans for when the person with the allergy leaves the house. This list is not comprehensive, but it serves as a starting point as you develop your plan. If you have a child in school with food allergies, you’ll want to create an entire plan dedicated to the school environment.
Consider including the following elements in your allergy safety plan for outside the home:
- Always Carry Medication: If the person with the food allergy has a medication like an EpiPen, that person should carry the medication on them at all times, and should ideally have backup medication, too. Be sure to also review the storage requirements for EpiPens, since getting them too warm or too cold can affect their effectiveness.
- Ensure the Allergy Plan is Written: The person with the food allergy should carry a written copy of his or her allergy plan at all times. The plan should also include contact information for family members. If the person is unresponsive and not with a family member, anyone who is with your family member can follow this written plan in the case of an emergency.
- Be Identifiable: Consider having children with allergies wear stickers or medical ID bracelets that note that they have a food allergy. Many of these devices can include information about the allergy, helping adults caring for the children to spot potential allergens and keep the kids safe.
- Make Others Aware: Whether at a restaurant, a play date, a school, or any other event, make everyone aware of the allergy. Inform people about what to do in case of an emergency. At restaurants, immediately identify that someone in your party has a food allergy, since your server may disinfect the table again and will alter how the order is entered with the kitchen. Be sure to ask about the steps the kitchen will take in preparing the food, and don’t eat at the restaurant if you’re not comfortable with the precautions taken.
- Bring Safe Foods with You: When you’re heading to a play date, party, or other gathering, don’t assume that the foods there are safe. Prepare safe snacks for your child to bring and make sure that your child knows not to share the snacks and how to tell other children why they can’t share. Give your child his or her own cup and snack containers with your child’s name on them to further reduce the risk of allergen contamination and ingestion.
This guide is just one of our many valuable resources that can help to keep your family safe and healthy, so be sure to review these additional resources: