When I was in elementary school, I remember every so often having to watch videos about food allergies and how to use an Epi-Pen at daycare with my peers (back when there was a grey cap to remove, and even a simple bump to the black end would deploy the needle—whether or not that was true—and the legacy device didn’t come with a needle-guard as the new version does ). From my experience working in daycare several years ago (and a good half-dozen years out of my own daycare experience!), I do think children now are more educated about the seriousness of food allergies than they were, even fifteen to twenty years ago when I was a kid that age.
Sometimes, though, the severity of food allergy, of cross-contamination, of what people with food allergies cannot eat—no not even just a little—is (surprisingly) hard to get across. Here are some ways to help the people in your life understand food allergies.
- Don’t be afraid to scare them a bit. Severe or potentially life-threatening food allergies are just that: scary. Sometimes, you have to be brutally honest with people who may not understand. “If I eat nuts, I could die.” “If my son consumes milk, it could kill him.” Food allergies and anaphylactic reactions are scary: ensure people understand the gravity of food allergies.
- Explain why allergic reactions can be so serious.The acronym to remember the symptoms of an allergic reaction is FAST—face (swelling of lips, bluish tint to skin, rash, hives, etc.), airway (difficulty breathing due to airway swelling), stomach (vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain), total body (rashes, swelling, dizziness, loss of consciousness).  If these symptoms are not treated quickly, they will only get worse—until lack of oxygen leads to death.
- Avoidance is the only way to stay healthy.The thing about life threatening allergies is that they are completely invisible… until they’re not, when a reaction occurs. If a person avoids their allergens, they are 100% healthy. This, for some people, can make food allergies very hard to understand. In order to stay healthy—and in many cases, alive—a person must strictly avoid their allergens. Cross-contamination (where oils or “trace amounts” of an allergen contaminate otherwise safe food) also poses a risk. If people surrounding the person with an allergy are not diligent, they may inadvertently harm the person with an allergy. The invisibility of food allergy is why, especially for children in the care of others much of the day, wearing a food allergy alert medical bracelet is so important. A medical ID bracelet provides a visual reminder of the child’s allergy to caregivers!
- Explain how epinephrine works and where it’s kept.“Blue to the sky, orange to the thigh,” as the Epi-Pen slogan goes, is important for those with food allergies carrying an Epi-Pen brand device, and those who care about them, to remember. Other devices may be used to inject epinephrine—ensure that the people around you or your child know how and when to use your device in case it is needed. Of greatest importance is to remember that it is important to err on the side of caution! If you suspect a reaction, inject! There is much greater risk in not receiving epinephrine when it is needed, than in giving a dose when it is not (the person may get shaky, jittery, and experience an increase in heart rate)—it is always better “safe than sorry”! After injecting, always call 911 and seek medical attention.
- Provide age-appropriate learning materials for kids and families.Perhaps your kid’s new best friend’s mom doesn’t quite “get it” why you send snacks with your kid to play dates, or your new friend’s kid runs around sticky with peanut butter which could trigger an allergic reaction. Provide appropriate learning materials to the right people: and sometimes, the way to break through to parents is through their own kids advocating for their friend! Picture books and cartoons are available and can be a great way to teach children about food allergies.
No matter how much or how little your friends and family understand about food allergies, your number one priority is staying safe and healthy. Ensuring you keep two things with you or your child at all times—your epinephrine and a food allergy medical ID bracelet or necklace—can help keep you safe.
How do you educate those around you about food allergies?