Educating others about food allergies must begin at the basics – covering prevention, emergency response, dispelling misconceptions, asking questions, and review.
As we move along our food allergy journeys, we have and will continue to encounter people to whom food allergies is a foreign world. It is, therefore, upon our shoulders to do the educating, both for their general knowledge base as well as for the safety of food allergy sufferers. Whether the people with whom you come into contact will have a food-related interaction with you (or your child) or not, will direct the depth of education you give them.
I’m going to focus this post on educating family and friends with whom you most likely have closer contact. You can read a previous post I wrote on Back to School: Food Allergy Guide (this will be handy once school starts back up).
Where to start? There are several steps to educating others about food allergies that encompass prevention, emergency response, dispelling common misconceptions, and continuing to review the steps.
- Spell out the exact foods to which you (or your child) is allergic. Don’t assume people know what “dairy” or “gluten” or other general categories are. Literally tell them the actual foods. For example, there is a strange (at least I always find it strange) idea that eggs are a dairy product. They are not! So, if you have a dairy allergy, say “milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, smoothies, and so on”. The same goes for the rest of the allergy categories.
- Inform people of the high risk of cross-contamination and explain in detail the various risks that exist. For example, cross contamination that can exist in shared utensils, cooking equipment, and work spaces.
- Give a detailed (written down) list of how your (or your child’s) allergies must be handled. Again, spell it out! You cannot give too much information, particularly if it’s written down. But since there is so much information, you cannot expect a new person to be able to absorb it all. That is why it is so important to write it down.
- If your child will be with another person without your presence, provide their allowed food. You can certainly tell the person what they can and cannot have, but there is a lot of risk in taking that approach. Furthermore, they do not know the specifics with label reading. It is best to provide the needed food and have a little extra. Do not allow the person to feed your child any food that you do not provide! You may even consider providing your own place settings and utensils to avoid any fear of cross-contamination.
- Inform the person of foods that cannot be in the same room with you or your allergic child. If peanuts are present in the same room, is this a potential risk?
- Finally, teach the person the proper cleaning techniques for tables, place settings/utensils, and hands/face. The most preferred method is water and soap, but wipes can be used if needed.
- Emergency response is just as important as prevention. You can take every precaution possible (even you as an educated parent) and allergic reactions can happen without explanation.
- Make sure emergency medication is accessible and up-to-date, with more than the prescribed quantity available.
- Educate the person on the use of each medication. Make no assumptions and give explicit instruction and test runs (epi-pens usually come with a practice pen).
- Write down each step of emergency response. Include the indicators of allergic reaction (remember, that these can be different for every reaction). Indicate what medication to administer and amounts. Include phone numbers for doctors, emergency rooms, and 911.
- Give instructions on what to do after medication is administered, whether it is “watch and see” or trip to the ER.
- Finally, run through a mock allergic reaction to make sure the person knows what to do.
Dispel Common Misconceptions
- I’m sure we’ve heard so many misconceptions when it concerns food allergies. If you have someone else taking care of your food allergy child or helping you, they must know the truth. Take on the common misconceptions and educate others on the truth.
- Food allergies and food intolerance are not the same. Read Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance. Explain the differences to others.
- A little allergen can do a lot of harm! I would say this is probably the most frustrating misconception to me. The “oh, there’s just a little butter in the cookies” or “I only used 1 egg in the recipe.” Seriously! A little hurts!
- A healthy alternative can still be an allergen. I’ve heard people say, “I used whole wheat flour instead of white flour. Is that okay for his wheat allergy?” I wonder about people sometimes.
- Your refusal to eat their food should not make you feel guilty and is not an affront to their cooking. Explain clearly and nicely why you’re refusing their food. Read last week’s post on Life with Food Allergies: Offending Others by Refusing Food.
One final step in educating others is asking questions. Go back through each step and have them repeat it to you. You won’t know what they have understood or misunderstood unless you ask them. Try not to get frustrated with this, but keep reviewing it with them.
I think that should cover it in a nutshell. I hope it isn’t too much information to digest. In our day when so many other people are taking care of our children and we’re interacting with people who may or may not be familiar with food allergies, we must take this subject seriously and do our best to educate others.
Please share any additional points you have on educating others about food allergies. This topic is so important that I do not want to miss any important points.
Next week, we’ll go one step further in discussing how to educate others about food allergies in stressing the severity of the issue. You can educate people a great deal and they can still misunderstand the severity of food allergies.
If you have missed any of the previous 9 topics in this series, simply click on Life with Food Allergies: What I Wish I Knew or you can find the series link in the sidebar.