For parents whose children live with an allergy to peanuts or tree nuts, avoiding the ingredients can become a matter of cautious routine. It’s never easy, but parents grow accustomed to avoiding certain foods and contaminants, watching for symptoms, and carrying the necessary supplies in case of an accidental exposure.
But what about friends, friends’ parents, or other family members? It can be hard to give a simple overview of the dangers and limitations that come with a peanut or tree nut allergy – especially when you’re trying to allow your child to live a life that’s as close to normal as possible.
Here’s what friends and family members should know about caring for or spending time with a child who has a nut allergy – whether it’s a sleepover, family vacation, or a babysitting gig.
It’s a real thing.
No matter what your own experiences with peanut or tree nut allergies may be, please trust that nut allergies are real, and can be very dangerous. Exposure therapy, “cheating,” or experimenting with allergens can have dire consequences. Trust that the child’s parents and health care team are managing the child’s allergy in the best, safest, and most convenient way they can.
Peanuts are sneaky.
You’d never expect to find peanuts in some salad dressings, or as a thickener for chili. However, peanuts are found in both. It’s important to read labels and double-check even the most innocent-looking foods. Peanut ingredients may be within the list of the ingredients. Or, the package might feature a “Contains: Peanuts” statement beneath the list of ingredients. Statements like “may contain peanut” should be taken into consideration as well.
If you don’t know the ingredients in a food – or can’t talk to someone who does (a restaurant manager, for instance) – it’s better to avoid the food entirely.
Cross-contamination also poses a hazard. This happens when, say, nut-free foods are prepared on a surface that’s recently been used to make a peanut butter sandwich. Or, when the same utensils or dishes are used for foods that are safe and those that contain peanuts or tree nuts.
Know what to watch for.
Just as no two allergic children are the same, neither are their physical symptoms. While some reactions can be mild, others can be severe, and involve more than one system of the body.
Symptoms can occur minutes to hours after exposure, and may include:
- runny or stuffy nose
- itching or tingling in the mouth or the throat
- nausea, vomiting, cramps or diarrhea
- hives or itchy, red skin
- shortness of breath or wheezing
Anaphylaxis is a sudden and severe reaction to an allergen like peanuts. It may involve the entire body and is a medical emergency. Signs include:
- difficulty breathing
- tightness in the throat, or a feeling like the throat or airways are closing
- a dramatic drop in blood pressure
- rapid heartbeat
- dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness
Anaphylaxis always calls for immediate treatment – usually in the form of injectable epinephrine – and a trip to the emergency room.
Don’t be afraid to use epinephrine.
In an emergency, it’s necessary. Ask the child’s parents for a demonstration. Then, you can practice administering epinephrine (marketed under the name Epipen) before you have to use it. Learn about the best injection sites, how to hold the device, and about any safety measures to take. That way, you’ll be able to act confidently in the event of a serious reaction.
If you do use epinephrine, it’s important to take the allergic child to the emergency department immediately following administration.
If you have questions about anything – allergies to other nuts, suspect ingredients, treatment plans, symptoms – ask the child’s parent or primary caregiver. Parents with children who have allergies are almost always willing to discuss the facts about their child’s allergy – and they need all the support and help they can get.