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What You Must Know About Food Allergies

Posted: December 25, 2014

Food allergies trouble many of us, can develop later in life, and also be fatal! Here’s what you should know about food allergies.

We often use the term ‘allergy’ casually. For a lot of us, it is something we associate with a little skin rash, runny nose, or watering eyes. So when one hears of an allergy to food, it is not taken seriously.

As a mother of a child with a food allergy, I am always talking about it, informing people about it, and dealing with it – every single day, at every meal, and in-between.

In my experience, most people dismiss ‘food allergy’ as just another fad and a fuss over nothing. Often, food allergy is mistaken for food intolerance, which is not the same.

Did you know that food allergies can be  life threatening?

Yes, it’s true.

Food intolerance vs Food allergy

What is the difference between food intolerance and a food allergy?

Food intolerance may be caused by difficulties in digesting food – like milk – leading to diarrhoea, bloating, and cramps. Allergy to food is when the body’s defence system reacts unusually to certain foods, and rejects it as if they are threats. Allergies can be mild, moderate, or severe and life-threatening, unlike food intolerance which is not life-threatening.

Also, even tiny amounts of a food can cause an allergic reaction, unlike food intolerance, where you need to eat a larger amount of food.

Diagnosis or confirmation of a food allergy can be done by a doctor using special tests like skin-prick tests and blood tests. Some hospitals have an allergy specialist who can  also help to differentiate between intolerance and allergy.

It is very important for us Indians, in particular, to be aware of this condition – as food allergies are on the rise in general, and coming to light among Indian children living outside India, more often. Research is still going on to find the cause of this condition, and why children (including Indian origin ones born in Western, developed countries) are more likely to suffer.

Children and adults can be allergic to any food, but the top 8 food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts (cashewnuts, pistachios, walnuts, and many others), sesame (til), dairy (milk, butter, cheese, ghee), egg, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.

Children and adults can be allergic to any food, but the top 8 food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts (cashewnuts, pistachios, walnuts, and many others), sesame (til), dairy (milk, butter, cheese, ghee), egg, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. Indian-origin children tend to be allergic to chickpeas (chole) and therefore the related besan (gram flour) and chana dal. Fruits like strawberries and kiwi are known allergens too. Allergies are discovered early in childhood, but may develop at any age, even in adult life.

Eating an allergen food or contact with skin or mucous membrane (as in rubbing eyes) can cause an allergic reaction that may be a skin rash, hives, itching, runny nose, watering of the eyes, swelling of the lips, face or eyes, stomach ache, vomiting, diarrhoea, feeling faint or even wheezing, a feeling of tightness and closure of the throat, inability to breathe, and unconsciousness.

If untreated, it can lead to loss of life very quickly, in a matter of minutes. This is called anaphylaxis. Therefore, it is vital to know what to do if such a situation arises.

Being prepared for food allergies

Obviously, prevention is better than cure.

If one invites a food allergic person over for a meal, it is good to check with them about what exactly they can eat and what they definitely cannot. Check the labels of foods to see what they contain, to avoid the allergen. This includes the oil used for cooking. Wash hands thoroughly before touching food made for the person.

Do not mix spoons and plates during cooking or serving. If in any doubt or if this is overwhelming, it’s best to ask the person to bring their own food along which is safe for them. No, they will not mind at all, and everyone can have a fun time without worries.

If serving finger food at a party, put out foods that are safe for the allergic person. People, especially other children, will eat with their hands, disperse crumbs on the floor ,and contaminate door handles, toys, shared items like whistles, flutes, party horns etc. If it’s a nut allergy, avoid obvious stuff like fried/masala nuts, chivda, sev mix, and so on.

If it’s a besan allergy avoid chaklis, sev, pakoras, and other such items. Mithai, and a lot of Indian desserts will usually contain milk, nuts, and besan. But several desserts can be made using substitutes or by avoiding nuts. Keeping wet wipes handy will help.

Please do not force the child to try a bite of it or feel insulted if they do not eat it.

For birthday parties, often, an allergic child will be unable to have the cake as it contains several allergens. Also, several chocolates contain nuts or traces of nuts, soya, and milk. Please do not force the child to try a bite of it or feel insulted if they do not eat it. If anything, you can buy or make a safe food treat that can be given as an alternative to cake.

But leave it to the parent to decide if the child can eat it or not. At pujas, the prasad may contain nuts, milk, or besan. It is a very sensitive issue for a child to decline it because of an allergy. Understanding this and not feeling offended goes a long way in supporting the child.

When having a food-allergic child over for a play date without the parent being present, its good to know what food to give them, know who to contact in case of an emergency, and have their allergy medicine with you. Usually, an antihistamine syrup or tablet is given for mild reactions, but for a severe reaction, an intramuscular injection of adrenaline (Epipen/ Anapen) is required.

A parent, carer or the child usually carries this if he/ she is old enough. If taking on responsibility for a child with food allergies, one must know the exact dose of the antihistamine and how to administer the Epipen injection. It may seem daunting, but it is simple to learn and it could save a life. So, if grandparents visit and look after the child, they should certainly be informed of this, and also the emergency number for the hospital.

If in India, it may be hard to get prompt medical help, therefore extra precautions are required. Kind, well-meaning neighbours, friends, helps do offer biscuits and chocolates as a treat, but they will need to be gently, but firmly told that the child cannot accept this unless checked by the parent. Genuine well-wishers will understand and gift the child with a non-food item that is equally appreciated.

Some caring goes a long way

Children with allergies are like other children in every other way. They need to be cared for differently, but have to be understood, accepted, and not judged for why they wash their hands too many times or why they avoid doing certain things.

I personally know of many Indian children who are allergic to food in various degrees and coping well with the support of those around them – family and friends. Also, I know 2 adults, both Indian surgeons; one with food allergies from childhood and one who developed severe allergy to seafood in his 50s. They are both doing well in their professions, but dealing with a condition that needs to be managed every single day.

In the west, there are allergy support groups, awareness in schools, online support forums, and strict labeling of food. There are lesser support systems available in India, and it is my aim to work towards this in my own capacity. We need Indian support groups, ideas of how to deal with food allergies including practical child-friendly Indian recipes that are allergen free, and how to deal with social situations in which food plays such a big role.

It’s time we took a moment to educate ourselves about food allergies. After all, it could be your grandchild, niece, nephew, your child’s best friend, your own child or even you who is at risk.

Pic credit: Image of allergens via Shutterstock.

 

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