Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Food Allergy Reactions: Communicating the Symptoms to Young Children

Recently, some readers have asked for advice on describing allergic reactions to young kids. They also wanted to know how to teach young children how to describe it to them, the parent, or to other adults.

This is a great question, because with kids getting diagnosed at younger and younger ages, they may not remember their severe allergic reactions. Some kids are diagnosed nowadays without experiencing that severe allergic reaction, so they may not know how to tell if they are having one.

In our case, my daughter reacted at age 4 for the first time and it was sudden, violent and life-threatening. She remembers the exact feelings she had, to the point that she was able to detect herself having a reaction at school. She got help right away, was given Benadryl, I was called to school and she made a complete recovery. The reaction, thankfully, turned out to be mild. However, had she not gotten help right away, it very well could have escalated. You never know how severe an allergic reaction is going to be.

I give you our story to show you how important it is to teach kids how to recognize the symptoms and how also to tell you, their caregiver, grandparent or daycare worker that they may be having an allergic reaction.

If you can't see hives or facial swelling, that doesn't mean a reaction is not taking place or about to take place. Kids may complain of an itchy throat or tongue, or even a "sore" throat. They may tell you that the food they are eating just tastes "wrong" to them or "spicy" or "sour." They may spit out a food (that's good if they do) because of an allergen you may not know if present. For example, from a very young age, my daughter would spit out foods immediately that contained any peanuts or tree nuts. We just thought she was picky! I wish we had known better.

Kids may also describe tummy troubles--they may feel nauseous or like they have stomach cramps. Breathing difficulties may be described as "my chest feels funny."

Here is a great link to the FAAN website that lists several examples of what young kids might say if they are having an allergic reaction.

Teaching your child to describe an allergic reaction
If your young kids have verbal skills, they probably have their own way of describing to you when they feel ill. When my oldest was very young, she would tell us "There's a bug in my throat" when she felt sick in any way. This was because in the past she had heard one of us say "She caught a bug" and then she confused that with the expression "I have a frog in my throat."

Your kids might have similar sayings. Role play with them and discuss, using terms they will understand, (such as the ones I list or those listed in the FAAN link), how a reaction might feel. Discuss with them what they will do if they feel this way.

One thing to note is that some children will look for a place to go and be alone, such as the bathroom, if they are feeling ill. You don't want a child who is experiencing a reaction to be alone because the reaction can advance before you or anyone else finds them.

Stress to your child that if they feel any allergy symptoms, they should go find an adult immediately and tell them. Period. Practice this with them and you can even make a game out of it to make it feel less scary.

Visual images of food allergens and potential allergy situations are also helpful. Be sure to check out Beyond a Peanut educational flashcards, a perfect tool for young children.

It's never fun to have to teach your child about life-threatening allergic reactions but think of it as an investment in their future health and independence. As kids grow older, the number one line of defense against them having an allergic reaction is: themselves. Kids who learn what to do, what to avoid and how to get help will be more confident and a lot better prepared.

Also, if your child has food allergies and special needs, please check out this article that I wrote recently for the Chicago-based magazine, Special Parent. Kids with special needs may need different approaches.


Bonnie said...

Well said!

Rebekah said...

My daughter was just 15 months old when she had her first reaction to peanuts, so she did not remember what the experience was like. When she had her second accidental exposure at age 3, she just kept saying, "I don't feel well," and "I need to use the potty." I tried taking her to the bathroom, but really what she was experiencing was nausea, which we later learned when she vomited violently in the back seat of our car. She is 4 now and remembers that vividly. We talk with her regularly about other things that she might feel if she accidentally eats peanuts in the future. It is scary to think and talk about, but SO, SO important!

~Amy said...

Wish I had seen this a year ago--we have learned by trial and error (not w/his nut allergy but w/the non-life-threatening food allergies) that our 3 1/2 yr old is reacting to something when he says something is "sour" or tries to scratch his tongue.

DS had his 1st anaphylactic reaction at 1 1/2...I don't know what he remembers of it but "Allie the Allergic Elephant" has helped us teach him what to watch out for and if he feels like Allie to let an adult know.

Lainy said...

Wonderful blog! Very insightful and helpful! I'm going to share this with all our family and friends :)

Katie G. said...

My name is Katie and I am the mother of a 4-year-old boy who has an allergy to both peanut and tree-nut -- especially almonds. He ate a cross-contimated cookie at christmas time (the bowl that was used to make the sugar cookie he ate had made almond biscotti earlier that day). He first complained that his tummy really hurt. Then his ears got bright pink. He also started saying "I don't like this feeling, I don't like this feeling -- in a panicky voice. At this point we gave him benedryl. My brother was present and he is a paramedic so he stripped my son down and got out his stethoscope. Pretty soon he heard a wheeze and my son broke out in hives. So my brother epi-ed him.

He was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was given more medication and watched for several hours.

I found your wonderful blog because my son's well-meaning teacher just sent me a clueless email asking if she can still use Brazil nuts in class if he has a peanut and tree-nut allergy. I am finding it difficult to grasp what is so difficult to understand about the phrase, "no nuts--ever." I feel like a broken record and the difficult mom.

Jenny said...

Thanks for all the comments everyone.

Katie G, don't worry. I've been there as well. You're not a difficult mom, you're a concerned mom who must look for her child. Big difference. Just keep reminding them, playing the cracked record and it wouldn't hurt to give your child's teacher a list of tree nuts. Believe it or not, a lot of people don't know what a tree nut is, or they hear "nut allergy" and only think of peanuts. Best wishes to you and hang in there!--Jenny