Food allergies can put serious limits on the daily activities of affected kids and their parents, a new study has found.
Among 87 families researchers surveyed, the majority of parents said that their child’s food allergy limited family social activities, and many felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of keeping their child from having a serious allergic reaction.
Based on these findings, stressed-out families should not feel alone, Dr. Mary E. Bollinger, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health.
“It’s not unusual, and you’re not crazy,” said Bollinger, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
But if the stress is harming family life, it’s time to get help, she advised. A good step, according to Bollinger, is to get newsletters from the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), an international organization of parents, medical professionals and others involved in caring for kids with food allergy.
Food allergies are caused by an immune system reaction to a protein in a particular food - most commonly eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat or soy. Symptoms, including skin rash, shortness of breath, stomach cramps and nausea, can be triggered by even minute amounts of the offending food.
Some people with food allergies can suffer severe, life-threatening reactions called anaphylaxis.
Because of this, food preparation and meal planning are crucial to keeping children with food allergies safe. But the task is not easy.
Allergens like eggs, soy and nuts often turn up as ingredients in prepared foods, and labels have not always been clear. While a new federal law now requires manufacturers to list the eight most common food allergens, product labels have traditionally offered vague terms like “natural flavors,” without naming the specific ingredients.
Parents seem to worry the most, Bollinger said, when their child’s meals are not under their direct control - at school, at other children’s houses or at restaurants.
Of parents in her study, published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 79 percent said their child’s food allergy made going to a restaurant stressful; 16 percent avoided dining out altogether. And more than half of parents said that family outings and vacations were a tough task.
Birthday parties and sleepovers were also a source of stress, parents said - so much so that one-quarter would not allow their child to sleep at a friend’s house.
Ten percent of parents said they home-schooled their children because of food allergy - a surprising rate, Bollinger said, since that’s not part of standard advice on dealing with the problem.
“There’s a fine line between being overly protective and being safe,” she said.
Families who are feeling overwhelmed or who feel their kids are missing out on their childhood should turn to resources like FAAN or parents’ support groups in their area, according to Bollinger.
“Families need to be aware that there are resources out there,” she said.
SOURCE: Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, March 2006.
Revision date: June 11, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD