It’s my drop-everything phone call. When the parent of a child who was recently diagnosed with a food allergy calls, I will step out of any meeting or miss bedtime with my daughters to answer. Why? Because I know exactly what it’s like to be on the other end. I know that scared mom needs to know that it’s going to be okay (it’s the truth). I was that mom ten years ago when my oldest daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening nut allergy. After getting the news, I gave myself 24 hours to be sad. Then, I soaked up the wisdom of other food allergy moms and made a plan.
Here is my go-to list of how to take your first steps forward. Take a deep breath – you’ve got this.
1. Get an epinephrine auto-injector.
If you suspect your child has a food allergy, call your pediatrician ASAP. Your child’s doctor can call in a prescription for an epinephrine auto-injector (like AUVI-Q or EpiPen) and refer you to an allergist without an office visit. Since it could take weeks or months to get an appointment with an allergist, fill the prescription right away, and be sure to keep two with you at all times just in case the first one malfunctions in an emergency situation. Remember that even if your child’s initial reaction was mild, the next time, it could be more severe.
2. Know how to use an auto-injector.
A parent is the first line of defense when there’s an allergic reaction, so even if needles make you queasy, you need to get comfortable using an auto-injector. Watch this video to learn how to use it in less than 60 seconds. Most auto-injectors come with a “trainer” that you can use for practice. Or, if you or someone you know has an expired auto-injector, inject it into an orange to get a feel for how much pressure is needed.
3. Find an allergist.
Allergists are specialists who can offer guidance on the latest research, treatments and therapies. To find the best of the best, get a referral from your pediatrician or ask parents of other food allergic children for a recommendation – they are your most valuable resources.
4. Learn how to read a food label.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Obviously, your child needs to avoid foods that contain his or her allergens, but don’t forget about foods that may accidentally contain the allergen. For some, cross contamination – foods that have “may contains” or “processed in a facility” warnings on the label – is a real health risk. Packaged foods are required by law to list an allergen in plain English if it’s an ingredient, but only if it’s one of the top 8 most common allergens – milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy or wheat. Check out this complete how-to guide.
5. Decide how to handle the allergen at home.
There’s no right answer to this one. Some families make the home an allergen-free zone, but others find safe ways to keep it in the house for themselves or non-food allergic siblings. Talk with your doctor and other food allergy parents to figure out what’s best for your family.
6. Know the symptoms of a reaction and how to treat them.
Every allergic reaction can look – and feel – a little different. The symptoms range from mild to severe, and in the worst cases, a child can experience anaphylaxis. If your child exhibits one mild symptom – like hives, vomiting, sneezing or diarrhea – you can give him or her a dose of Benadryl (check with your pediatrician for proper dosage). When two or more mild symptoms present themselves, administer the auto-injector and call 911. If your child has one severe symptom – like trouble swallowing, wheezing, chest pain or a weak pulse – you should also use the auto-injector and call 911.
7. Have a heart-to-heart with your child about food allergies.
Sure, sitting an 18-month-old down to discuss a medical diagnosis is tough, but every parent should try to find an age-appropriate way to talk about food allergies. Use clear phrases like, “This food can make you very sick,” and “You can’t eat this.” Parents can also model healthy habits by asking, “What is in this? Is it safe for my child to eat?” when ordering at restaurants or eating at a relative’s home. Find out what 36 skills your child should master by his or her 18th birthday.