8 Tips for Managing Food Allergies
Millions of people in the U.S. have food allergies. Allergic reactions to food happen every day. Some reactions are mild (like congestion and sneezing), while some can be severe, even life-threatening (like anaphylaxis). Managing food allergies and learning ways to protect yourself (or your child) are critical to preventing or minimizing harmful allergic reactions.
The best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid the trigger food(s). But even with the utmost precautions, there’s always a chance you could unexpectedly consume or be exposed to a food allergen.
Below are 8 tips for managing food allergies, which can help minimize the chances of having food allergic reactions for you or your child.
Always read labels
Read labels every single time. Even if it’s a product that you’ve eaten hundreds of times with no issues. Sometimes ingredients change. Sometimes manufacturing facilities change. No matter what, read the entire nutrition label and ingredient list prior to consuming a product.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) is a law that requires food manufacturers to list ingredients that may cause an allergic reaction. The act applies to the eight most common allergenic foods -- commonly called the Big 8 Allergens. These 8 allergens cause around 90% of all food reactions.
Here’s how to identify allergens when reviewing a food product label:
- Ingredient name. Examples: buttermilk, almonds
- Following the ingredient name in parenthesis. Examples: lecithin (soy), whey (milk)
- After the ingredients list. Example: Contains eggs, milk, and soy.
Recognize all the names for the allergen(s)
That way, you can recognize it on a food label no matter how it’s listed. For example, if you are allergic to milk, you’ll want to avoid products that list casein as an ingredient. If you’re allergic to sesame seeds, avoid products that contain tahini.
Know your symptoms
Symptoms can differ each time you have an allergic reaction. A mild reaction this time doesn’t mean you’ll have a mild reaction next time. It’s critical to recognize all food allergy symptoms so you can quickly act as soon as the symptoms start. If your child has a food allergy, go over the symptoms with them and make sure they understand the importance of immediately contacting an adult as soon as they feel any symptoms.
Common symptoms include:
- Skin: itching, hives, swelling, rashes
- Eyes: redness, swelling, tears, itching
- Mouth: swelling of tongue or lips, itching
- Respiratory: nasal congestion, sneezing, dry cough, scratchy/itchy throat, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness
- Cardiovascular: dizziness, confusion, weakness, fainting, low blood pressure, irregular heart rate, loss of consciousness
- Gastrointestinal: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain
Always carry your medication with you
If you have a severe food allergy, have your epinephrine auto-injector (Epi-Pen) with you (or your child) at all times and make sure that it can be easily accessed during an emergency. (It’s recommended you carry two so you have a back-up.) An Epi-Pen can be life-saving if injected within minutes of a severe allergic reaction. It is designed to quickly reduce throat swelling and help improve breathing and blood pressure.
Those close to you or your child (family, teachers, colleagues, etc.) should all be taught how to use an Epi-Pen should the need ever arise. Whenever an Epi-Pen is used, an ambulance must be called to the scene immediately in case more epinephrine is needed and to ensure the allergic reaction is thoroughly treated by health care providers.
In the case of mild reactions, having antihistamines (such as Benadryl) on hand can help reduce symptoms, such as itching and hives.
Have an emergency action plan
People with life-threatening food allergies should have an emergency action plan that is communicated to everyone they have daily contact with. For adults, that typically includes family, friends, and coworkers. For children, this includes teachers, school administrators and staff members, and before/after school caregivers. The action plan should include the food allergens, the symptoms to look for, and what to do if a severe food allergic reaction occurs.
Wear a medical ID band and/or carry a wallet card
The information on medical bracelets and wallet cards should include your (or your child’s) name, the foods that trigger allergic reactions, and emergency contact cell phone number. If your child has one, it can be placed in your child’s backpack in the front pouch.
Be vocal when dining out
When you’re dining out at a restaurant, communicate directly with the chef to make sure proper steps are taken to address your food allergy. It may be helpful to carry a “chef card” -- a printed note that lists the ingredients you’re allergic to and a request that all dishes, utensils, and preparation surfaces be free of traces of your food allergen.
Avoid cross-contamination when cooking
It’s important to avoid cross-contact (or cross-contamination) when cooking at home. Cross-contact occurs when an allergen is transferred from a food containing the allergen to an allergen-free food. It can happen directly (e.g., picking out shrimp from the dish) or indirectly (e.g., using the utensil that cooked shrimp to cook the shrimp-free dish).
Follow these tips to avoid cross-contact and minimize allergic reactions:
- Eliminate all products that contain the allergen at home (this may not be possible for every family but it’s the most effective option).
- Have dedicated food preparation areas that are allergen-free.
- Have a different set of cooking and eating utensils that are exclusively for the person with food allergies.
- Cook allergen-free foods and place in a separate area, covered and clearly labeled, before cooking dishes that contain allergens.
- Wash your hands with soap and water each time you touch a food allergen.
- Wash all cookware, dishes, and utensils in hot soapy water after each use.
- Use soap and water to clean counters, tables, stovetop, microwave, and oven after each meal.