Emotional Impact of Food Allergies on Parents and Children

Boy with food allergy eating lunch

Food allergies can be frightening, and they are becoming more prevalent especially in children. Supporting children who have food allergies and learning new ways to help families manage these allergies has become vital as currently 32 million people in the United States suffer with food allergies, and 5.6 million are children.2 Food allergies are increasing. The percentage of children with a food allergy has increased by about 50% between 1997 and 2011. Currently, one in 13 children in the United States has a food allergy.2

What are the most frequent food allergens? 

Eight foods cause 90% of most food allergy reactions:5

  • Milk/Milk Products (e.g., cow’s milk, casein, whey)
  • Egg
  • Peanut
  • Tree nut (e.g., almonds, walnut, pecans, cashews, pistachios)
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
  • Shellfish (e.g., crab, shrimp, scallop, clams)

How do families manage food allergies?

When children come into contact with the foods that cause them to have an allergic reaction, they can display symptoms (e.g., rash, hives, vomiting, diarrhea, swelling). This is called an allergic reaction. Foods that cause an allergic reaction are called allergens. Sometimes, these reactions can be severe and life-threatening (i.e., anaphylactic shock, which can cause blood pressure to dramatically drop and airways to narrow). No one can predict how severe a reaction will be.2

Food allergies can be extremely scary for both the child with the allergy and his or her parents/caregivers. Because, when contact with an allergen is made, there is no way to prevent the allergic reaction, parents/caregivers (and children) must closely monitor all food with which the child comes into contact.

Food allergies and the resulting reactions can have lasting emotional and social effects on families. In fact, food allergies are more than a physical condition; they impact every aspect of a parent and child’s life. Research indicates that it is often common for parents to feel a sense of fear towards food and potential allergic reactions:3

  • 92% of parents say they always or occasionally feel fearful for their child’s safety because of food allergies;
  • 90% of parents say they always or occasionally fear cross-contact of foods;
  • 75% of parents say food allergy reactions cause fear/anxiety for their family; and
  • 31% of parents say they have seen a mental health professional related to their child’s food allergies.

Parents of children with food allergies

According to the My Life With Food Allergy: Parent Survey Report, there are high rates of emotional and social impact on parents who have children with food allergies.1

  1. Mental and emotional impact of food allergies on parents is greater than the impact on the patients.1
    1. Parents/caregivers report a higher burden than do patients age 13 and over.
    2. Food allergies have a major impact on many parents’ mental, social, and emotional well-being.
    3. Fear, anxiety, and worry were common themes throughout the survey’s responses from parents.
  2. Food allergies have considerable impact on parents’ social lives.1
    1. Families experience a loss of normalcy leading to adjustments in decision-making and daily routines.
    2. Parents report skipping events, including school functions, due to food allergies.
    3. Birthday parties, traveling, dining out, and entertainment activities present challenges for parents.
  3. Food allergies can cause significant financial strain and time burden for parents.1
    1. For some families, daily realities and needs for caring for children with food allergies present a major financial burden.
    2. Some families have had to make career decisions based on food allergies, which have led to a negative financial impact for the household.
    3. Food allergies can also present a major time burden for some families.

Children with food allergies

Food is essential to life; it must be consumed to survive. Imagine being fearful of eating and how the food you consume could hurt you? Children with food allergies may develop levels of anxiety regarding a fear of food.

Upon entering school, children often may experience fear and anxiety as a result of being around others who do not struggle with food allergies.4 As a result of a food allergy, a child may feel left out and isolated from friends and normal activities, and lonely or even friendless.4 In some cases, children may be too scared to eat at school or anywhere away from home and may develop a sense of food aversion.4

What can you do to help someone with a food allergy?

You can help by learning how people with food allergies avoid allergic reactions. One main concern for people with food allergies is to avoid allergens that pass from one food to another, and they take precautions, such as the following:

  • Wash their hands before and after they eat.2
  • Ask food preparers questions about food being served and if the utensils have been used for preparing or serving other foods.
  • Ask you to wash your hands after you’ve prepared a food or eaten a food that may contain allergens.

Individuals with food allergies must read food labels. A child with food allergies may need your help reading labels to eat safely. Find out what to do in case of an allergic reaction – many individuals with food allergies have an allergy plan developed by an allergist. Be prepared to help someone use their epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) and, if used, call 911. If you are caring for a child with food allergies, make sure the child’s parents show you how to follow the allergy plan and administer the Epi-Pen.

References

  1. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2019). My life with food allergy: Parent survey report. Retrieved from https://aafa.org/foodallergylife
  2. Kids with Food Allergies.(2014, August). So what’s the big deal about food allergies? Retrieved from https://www.kidswithfoodallergies.org/whats-the-big-deal-about-food-allergies.aspx
  3. Kids with Food Allergies. (2019, May). The social and emotional impact of food allergies. Retrieved from https://community.kidswithfoodallergies.org/blog/the-social-and-emotional-impact-of-food-allergies
  4. UNC Health Talk. (2019, October). The emotional toll of food allergies in children. Retrieved from https://healthtalk.unchealthcare.org/the-emotional-toll-of-food-allergies-in-children/
  5. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2018). What you need to know about food allergies. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/what-you-need-know-about-food-allergies

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