What Is An Allergy?

An allergy is an abnormal immune system reaction to something that is typically harmless to the average person.

When you have an allergic reaction, your immune system mistakenly believes that substance is harmful to your body. In reaction to the substance, the body produces an antibody called IgE, which in turn causes cells in the body to release a chemical into the bloodstream called histamines. 

There are several substances that can cause an allergic reaction, but the most common are: certain foods, plant pollen, dust and mold, pet dander, insect bites, and medicines.

Read more about allergies.

What Is A Food Allergy?

Food intolerances, known as histamine intolerances, affect roughly 25% of the population of the US. When the body does not supply enough of a certain digestive enzyme, and foods high in histamine are consumed, the body may react with allergy-like symptoms. These symptoms, while unpleasant, are just temporary.

For someone with a true food allergy, their body will react much more severely, and the allergic reaction generally lasts much longer.

There are eight foods that account for around 90% of food allergy reactions. Those foods include: peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, soy, wheat, milk, and eggs. Some food allergens may be outgrown, however, peanut and shellfish are rarely outgrown. Some food allergens can cause your airways to swell and cause anaphylaxis, or shock.

Celiac Disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is a digestive disorder that is triggered by eating the protein gluten. Gluten is the name of a protein found in specific grains that are harmful to people with Celiac disease and is found in all forms of wheat and related grains (rye, barley, semolina, faro). Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune condition that causes damage to the small intestine and prohibits proper digestion and absorption of food.

Read more about celiac disease.

Living with a food allergy can be done, but you must pay attention and take caution with what you put in your body. That includes asking waiters for clarity on menu items, reading ingredient lists on store bought foods, and always checking with friends before consuming a food you didn't prepare.

If You Have A Food Allergy:

While living with a food allergy can be extremely challenging, it can be done. Here are some tips for coping with a food allergy.

Know the symptoms of your food allergy. Each person may react differently, but the common symptoms are: hives, swollen belly, pain or discomfort in the belly, extreme nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and, in severe cases, anaphylactic shock.

Consistently read food labels, as brands may change their formula. Learn what key words are red flags for unknown foods, such as "spices" or "natural flavors" as these can be a mix of various foods that may or may not include your food allergen.

Don't forget to check labels on body products too. Many food allergens can be "ingested" by the body through touch. This is especially true with oils.

Be your own advocate. Sometimes it's hard to be the person who always asks the waiter for a detailed ingredient list. But if you ask nicely and explain that you have a food allergy, waiters are happy to comply and will accommodate your food needs.

Speak up. Tell your friends and family about your food needs. When you head over for a holiday meal, or a summer BBQ with friends, offer to bring a dish that you know you can eat. This ensures you’ll be able to eat something, and is also thoughtful to the host.

There may be times when you don't want to be a bother, and so you convince yourself that just a little won't hurt. You're wrong. You do not have to eat anything that could cause you pain or discomfort. Be brave, and say no.

Food allergies are considered a disability under federal laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The first time you react to an allergen it might be mild, but each subsequent reaction could be significantly worse. Food allergens tend to grow with each consumption.

That awkward moment when others are eating around you, but you can't due to an allergen, is 100% better than the moment when you are in pain because you ate the food anyway.

Learn how to use your epi-pen before you ever need to use it in a real life situation. Ask your allergist for a training injector pen, and don't be shy about training friends and family.

If you take medication for your allergies, or carry an epi-pen, make sure you always have the medication on you. This is especially true when you travel.

When you travel, pack lots of snacks that you know you can have. There is nothing worse than discovering that the only snack available en route is something that you can't eat.

If flying with a peanut allergy, it's important to note that many airlines still hand out packets of peanuts. When booking your flight, check the airline's snack policy on their website. You can also call the airline and ask them to flag your travel reservation with a peanut allergy. Then let the flight attendant know right away as well. Airline staff will do their best to keep your area peanut free.

If Your Child Has a Food Allergy:

While living with a food allergy yourself can be challenging, having a child with a food allergy can be even more difficult, especially if your child has a particularly strong reaction to allergens. Here are some tips for coping with your child's food allergies:

Just because your child hasn't consumed an allergen doesn't mean they haven't come into contact with one. Teach your child proper hygiene, such as washing their hands with soap and water.

When visiting with friends or family out of town, make sure to note the location of the local hospital or emergency clinic. If your child accidentally comes into contact with a severe food allergen, that is not the time to be spent looking up where to go if someone local isn't available to drive you.

Ask family members and friends to be respectful about not serving a known food allergen near your child. These foods are often easily avoidable, and most friends and family will have no problem with your request.

Talk with all teachers and caregivers before the first day of school. Provide a list of foods your child cannot have, and include a list of symptoms that may occur should your child consume one of the allergens. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network offers a great Food Allergy Action Plan form to provide to teachers and caregivers.

Check with your school district and your child's teacher for the specific policies, as some schools will allow a teacher to hold onto an epi-pen labeled with your child's name. Other schools will insist that the child hold onto the medication, typically in the backpack in an easy to reach location. Make sure you include emergency contact numbers.

With your allergist, decide if you want your child to sit at an allergy friendly table during snack and/or lunch time. When possible, volunteer to provide snacks for special classroom events so that "safe snacks" can be provided and your child can eat what everyone else is eating. Talk with your child's teachers about keeping snacks in the classroom safe, or talk with the head of the school.

Speak with the school cafeteria director about what foods are prepared in the cafeteria, and whether certain allergens can be avoided. After educating yourself on the food prep in the school cafeteria, you can make an informed decision as to whether or not to let your child partake in the school lunch program or stick with a home packed lunch.

Teach your child not to share foods with other students at school, and not to eat anything that wasn't provided to them by Mom, Dad or the regular teacher at school.

When your kid comes home with a permission slip for a field trip, make sure to inquire about whether a packed lunch will be an option or if lunch will be served by the field trip destination. Make sure to pack an emergency contact sheet in your child's backpack along with extra medication, such as an epi-pen, and remind the teacher or field trip volunteer of your child's food allergy. You can also volunteer to be a chaperone on the field trip.

So your kid wants to attend camp, but you're not sure about sending him off on his own for a few weeks. Make an appointment to speak with the camp director about your child's food allergies. Take notes on what foods will be served, and make sure the director knows what foods your child cannot have. When you drop your child off for camp, ask to speak with his camp counselor and let that person know about the food allergy. Pack extra epi-pens and the written allergy action plan, and instruct the camp counselor on the use. Some camps may let you pack special snacks for kids with allergies.

Have your child allergy tested on a regular schedule. Allergies and intolerances can shift in children with age or diet changes.

How NOT To Help Someone With A Food Allergy:

Most of us know someone with a food allergy, and while we may want to be helpful, there are some things to avoid while trying to help someone who has a food allergy:

Do not try to sneak a little of the allergen into your friend's food to help them build a tolerance. This does NOT work, and could be a serious detriment to your friend's health.

Do not prepare food for your friend after working with food they are allergic to. Even the oils from some foods can cause an allergic reaction. Use separate surfaces, and wear gloves. In lieu of gloves, wash your hands thoroughly between preparations.

Do not order food at a restaurant for your friend unless you know exactly what they want, or are equally careful about checking for allergens in their meal.

Do not give your friend medical advice about their allergy if you are not a medical professional.

Do not give any unsolicited advice to your friend about their allergy. Chances are they’ve heard it all from everyone. Wait for them to ask you for help before bringing up suggestions for allergy relief.

What NOT To Say To Someone With a Food Allergy:

Can't you try just a little? No, sometimes just a little can cause serious pain, or swelling that could lead to a restricted airway. In the case of Celiac's just a bite of gluten can cause hours of pain, or even pain for days. A bite of peanut for someone allergic can cause immediate swelling of the airways which can lead to anaphylactic shock, or even death if not treated in time.

Are you allergic, or do you just not like it? It's rude to assume a person is lying just to get out of tasting your casserole. If they claim an allergy, you should respect it.

Do not tell your friend that it's all in their head. Food allergies can be serious, and should be taken seriously.

Why do you make such a big deal about your allergies? Because you have to, that's why. Unlike most seasonal hay fever allergies, food allergies can cause serious damage in a short amount of time. One slip and you could have serious pain or discomfort for hours, or even go into anaphylactic shock. You make a big deal, because you care about your quality life.

What about my kid's right to their snack? Why should my kid give up their favorite food because of your kid's allergy? An allergy is a medical need, and not a desire or a want.

If you have any other tips or tricks for living with a food allergy, please email bandbacktogether@gmail.com!