The exact incidence of childhood food allergies in South Africa remains uncertain, but the perception of specialist allergy units across the country is of an overall increase in allergy patients over the last decade.
Your immune system normally protects you from germs and disease, it helps you to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other tiny organisms that can make you sick. If you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly treats the protein in certain food as if it’s dangerous to you. Your body reacts to the food by having an allergic reaction. Most allergic reactions happen within minutes, but some can occur a few hours after exposure. Symptoms can include: itching, flushed skin, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat, coughing, wheezing, sneezing, shortness of breath, irritability, confusion, sweating, dizziness, fainting, or loss of consciousness or anaphylaxis (a severe life-threatening allergic reaction).
Managing a food allergy
People with food allergies must avoid coming into contact with foods that cause them to react (e.g. eating, touching). Read labels to identify safe foods and be very cautious of cross-contamination (where your child’s food comes into contact with a food they react to). It is also important be ready to treat an allergic reaction with emergency medication and get medical help.
Children pay attention to what you do. When they see you read labels, they will learn that this is important.
- Even from a young age, your child can learn how to read a food label with your help. Start practicing when your child begins to read. Practice label reading at home and when shopping. This is a good way for your child to learn skills with you present. Over time, this will become a habit for your child.
- Praise your child for reading food labels carefully. They should know you are proud of them for taking the right steps to stay safe.
- Your child can also practice teaching others how to read a food label.
Have a written Anaphylaxis Emergency Plan
Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) is the medicine of choice used to treat a severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis. It works quickly to reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis, but in some cases, a second dose may be needed. When you are prepared to treat an allergic reaction, it makes a real emergency situation less stressful. There are different names for written plans, such as Emergency Care Plan and Food Allergy Action Plan, essentially the plan gives detailed information about your child’s food allergies. It also includes important information on symptoms, how to treat a reaction and how to get emergency help.
Post this plan in a place where you can see it and have a copy available at all times for any person caring for your child. Ask your doctor to help you fill out a copy and explain the emergency steps. You should be able to recognize the symptoms of anaphylaxis and treat your child with an auto-injector.
- Teach your child about the possible symptoms of an allergic reaction.
- Tell your child to talk to an adult immediately if they think they may have accidentally eaten an unsafe food or feel any symptoms of an allergic reaction.
- Let your child know that you keep their emergency medicine close by. If they have an allergic reaction, using it will help them to feel better quickly. It is never too early to help your child become confident about the use of an auto-injector.
- Talk to your child about the emergency steps, so that going to the hospital won’t be a surprise.
- Help your child to feel more in control by practicing with a training device. Even preschool- aged children learn from medical play, just as they might by playing with a toy stethoscope before visiting their doctor. This can be a great way to make sure they understand about the auto-injector and how it will help them in an emergency.
When the time comes to go to school
Teach your toddler:
- Wash your hands before eating or touching your nose, eyes or mouth.
- Only eat food that is made for you. It’s not safe to share food.
- Don’t share spoons, forks, knives, cups, bottles or straws.
- If you get an allergen on your skin, ask an adult for help, clean it off and wash your hands.
Consider taking your child to meet their teacher and see their classroom ahead of time, to help your child become comfortable in these new settings. Consider asking if classmates and childcare friends can be taught about food allergies. This can be done by having a teacher or school nurse read a children’s book about food allergies. ‘Patty’s Secret: A Tale About Living with Food Allergies‘ by Leneille Moon, is a lovely option. This is a darling story about a little pig named Patty who has multiple severe food allergies. There are some great lessons that can be learned from this book written to spread the word about food allergies.
Allergy Society of South Africa
South African Cookbook for Allergies and Food Intolerance by Hilda Lategan
Medic Alert Foundation Southern Africa – 086 111 2979
Allergy Kids – Website set up by a South African mum with a daughter with food allergies
Allergy Epicentre – is a South African support group for allergy sufferers or parents of children with severe allergies.