According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies are a growing problem in schools nationwide, affecting 4 to 6 percent of kids in the U.S. today. The Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization estimates that there are at least two children in every U.S. classroom with food allergies and that 30 percent of those students have an issue with more than one kind of food.
While the problem itself isn’t new, it has undoubtedly gotten worse over time. Between 1997 and 2011, based on CDC research, food allergies in children increased 50 percent, and tree or peanut allergies tripled between 1997 and 2008. Doctors aren’t quite sure why there has been such an increase, but some point to an increase in processed foods as the culprit. Others cite a hotly debated “hygiene hypothesis,” which states that lack of exposure to germs as a child increases the risk of allergies.
Whether it’s junk food or too much hand sanitizer, the uptick of food allergies in kids is definitely a problem worth paying attention to. So what do you need to know, and what can be done to thwart the effects of these allergies?
Understanding food allergies begins with defining what is happening in the body. According to the CDC, food allergies are a “hypersensitivity disorder in which the immune system reacts to substances in the environment that are normally considered harmless.” Some of the foods that the body most commonly mistakes as an enemy are milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.
Exposure to an allergen can prompt a variety of reactions — some mild, some severe. Typically, doctors consider a reaction in one part of the body (such as the skin) to be mild. But when two parts of the body begin reacting — such as the skin and the throat — it’s what doctors refer to as “anaphylaxis,” which causes the body’s airways to constrict, and it can be life-threatening. FARE reports that an estimated 40 percent of children with food allergies have experienced anaphylaxis at one point, requiring a shot of epinephrine.
Although the facts surrounding food allergies in kids may be alarming, doctors say the good news is that there is treatment. One of the most exciting — and newer — treatments is what’s called desensitization. Recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it involves giving small, increasing doses of the allergen to infants to make their immune system get used to it. By the AAP standards, this means introducing the eight high-risk foods above within the first four to six months of life.
Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergy and immunology specialist at New York University Langone Medical Center, says the more information we have about food allergies, the better. “Awareness is key to preventing a bad situation,” Parikh tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Be your own advocate. … Talk to teachers, parents, friends, coaches, and school nurses so they understand the risks and know they can help.”
For classmates, teachers, and parents, she suggests that the best thing to do is to become acquainted with using an EpiPen, a device that delivers life-saving medication during anaphylactic shock. “If you’re not sure if you should use the epinephrine auto-injector, do it anyway!” Parikh says. “It can’t hurt if you use it but can be fatal if you don’t. Knowing the dangers, how to avoid them, and the best way to react if there’s a problem is crucial.”
FARE also has helpful tips for talking with your child about food allergies, such as teaching them the names of “unsafe” foods and what they commonly look like, instructing them to eat only foods given to them by their parents or other trusted adults, and telling them to find an adult right away if they feel sick or seem to be having an allergic reaction.
While there’s still no simple cure for food allergies, there is also no shortage of information about the risks and — more important — the treatment. As Parikh puts it, that alone can save a life.
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