Friday, June 19, 2009

Food Allergy Basics

I am beginning an occasional series on food allergies for classroom teachers. I hope to eventually put the posts all together for a presentation at a conference next year, but I’m having trouble deciding what teachers need to know. As a parent of food allergic children, I know a lot more than teachers should be expected to remember or take care of. I need to find the right balance of information. I’d love to have specific feedback on these posts in order to make them accurate, understandable, and helpful. Other topics will include: How to Handle Food Allergy Emergencies, Preventing Food Allergy Emergencies, and Instructional Implications for Food-Allergic Students. Thanks for your input!

What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is an immune system response to a protein in a food with which a person has already had at least one contact. Contact can occur through ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact. All foods that humans normally eat contain some protein; therefore it is possible to be allergic to any food, including fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Reactions to chemicals in food may or may not involve the immune system. Some people prefer to call these reactions “poisoning” because the substance in question is entirely man-made so not really a food, but your response as an adult is likely to be the same regardless of the offending substance.

What are some common food allergies in children?
The “Big 8” allergens cause 90% of anaphylactic reactions. These allergens are: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, soy, and shellfish. These foods may be highlighted on ingredient lists or in statements on food packaging but the only true requirement is that they appear in easily understood English in the ingredients list. If a separate bold statement does appear on a label then any of the big 8 that are present are required to be on it.

The “made in a factory that also processes…” types of statements on packages are voluntary. About 10% of the packages that contain such statements DO contain the noted allergen regardless of the warning’s wording. There is an exception to this statistic for special manufacturing processes, but it’s better not to serve a food that’s questionable than to make a guess if you don’t already know for certain.

What are some of the symptoms of an allergic reaction?
The allergic response can produce symptoms in the skin, gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system, and respiratory system. Symptoms may include one or more of the following: a tingling feeling in the mouth or throat (for example, “my mouth feels funny”), swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, low blood pressure, unconsciousness, and death.

Very young children often do not exhibit symptoms in the way we would expect. Be aware of odd behavior, particularly when accompanied by anxiety or severe worry. Children who cannot verbalize their health status may look extremely stressed for no apparent reason.

What is anaphylaxis (or anaphylactic shock)?
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that occurs suddenly and may cause death. It involves two or more systems in the body and may or may not include trouble breathing.

What is the difference between an allergy and an intolerance? What is a food sensitivity?
An allergy involves the immune system’s reaction to a protein. An intolerance involves an inability of the body to digest something, typically a sugar. While an intolerance is not life-threatening it can be just as painful as an allergy and can send some people to the hospital. A sensitivity is something that doesn’t fall neatly into the allergy or intolerance categories. Intolerances and sensitivities do not require emergency treatment but are to be taken seriously all the same because they can develop into an allergy with continued exposure to the offending item.

Where can I get more information on allergies?
A great place to start is the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, or FAAN. Also useful are the Food Allergy Initiative and Allergy Moms.

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