What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is when “the body’s immune system reacts unusually to specific foods.” Usually, it occurs when a person has eaten the food they are allergic too, but in some cases, it can occur if the food is merely touched or smelled. Allergic reactions can be mild and are quite common in children, who may grow out of them as they get older. However, in some cases, allergies can be very serious and life-threatening causing a condition called anaphylaxis which requires an immediate emergency response.

What’s the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?

Food intolerance occurs when the body has a chemical (but not immune) reaction to eating a particular food or drink and is usually mild or moderate. A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a harmless food and can cause severe reactions such as anaphylaxis.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a food allergy can affect different areas of the body at the same time and common symptoms include:

  • a tingling or itchy sensation inside the mouth, throat or ears
  • a raised itchy red rash (urticaria, or hives)
  • swelling of the face, around the eyes, lips, tongue and roof of the mouth (angioedema), or swelling around other areas of the body
  • wheezing or shortness of breath
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhoea
  • difficulty swallowing
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • hay fever symptoms such as itchy/runny eyes and sneezing

What causes food allergies?

The reason that people have food allergies is not yet completely understood and more research is needed to establish the causes. What is known is that allergies are common in children but can occur in any age, and that they often run in families, suggesting a genetic link.

Some of the most common food allergens are:

  • cows’ milk (around 2 – 3% of children are allergic)eggs
  • foods that contain gluten, including wheat, barley and rye
  • nuts and peanuts
  • seeds
  • soya
  • fish and shellfish
  • cocoa or cocoa products

How many people have food allergies?

It is difficult to estimate with total accuracy the number of people in the UK who have allergies due to their diverse nature and wide variation in the severity of symptoms, however, allergic disease has been described by the World Health Organisation as a “modern epidemic” and it is the most common chronic disease in Europe. Estimates suggest allergies affect up to 21 million people in the UK, one of the highest prevalences in the world, but these are not all food allergies since many millions of people suffer from seasonal hay fever and asthma. Approximately 5 – 8% of children in the UK have a food allergy and the incidence is rising with a 615% increase in the rate of hospital admissions for anaphylaxis in the UK between 1992 and 2012.

What’s the law?

The law regarding allergen labelling changed last October after a review of labelling laws following the tragic death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died from an allergic reaction caused by an ingredient in a baguette bought at a food outlet at Heathrow Airport in 2016. The new law, known as ‘Natasha’s Law’ requires all pre-packed foods, including those which are prepared and packed on the same premises where they are sold, to have full ingredients listed on the label with the 14 major allergens emphasised for easy identification. Following the law change, many food serveries have stepped up their allergen awareness by asking more questions from customers and displaying more warning notices.

Food Allergy Awareness Week

This is organised by FARE and FAACT which are American charities dedicated to raising awareness of food allergies, but it is also supported by other charities such as Allergy UK. This year it occurs from 8 – 14th May 2022 and is a great time to raise awareness of food allergies and anaphylaxis with your staff, parents and children. You can run education sessions, read and discuss stories about children with allergies and promote safer ways to deal with allergies in your setting. All three sites have lots of information and advice on how to get involved including resources for educators and parents.

Ways to mark Food Allergy Awareness Week

Educate your staff

Knowledge is power so they say, and it is vital that you and ALL your staff are aware of ALL the children in your setting who have food allergies. This information should be collected on sign-up and before any trial days, and should be disseminated to staff so that they are aware and do not inadvertently offer a child something that could cause a reaction. Staff sometimes use food as treats for children, which is fine, as long as these are not going to cause reactions. Many settings also ban common food allergens such as nuts in packed lunches, and children should be supervised so that they do not share inappropriate food with others who may have allergies.

Learn to recognise and treat symptoms

Staff should also be trained in how to recognise an allergic reaction and how to administer first aid. Seventeen percent of fatal food-anaphylaxis reactions in school-age children happen while they are at school and worryingly, 20% of anaphylactic reactions in schools are in children with no prior history of food allergy.

Some children with severe allergies may carry emergency medicine (such as an epi-pen) but staff will need to be well trained in the procedures and protocols for administering medicines if required. All medicines need to be correctly labelled and have photo identification and contact information attached, including dates for regular checking to make sure they are still in date. If anaphylaxis is suspected, then you should always call 999.

Join a recognised scheme

Allergy UK offer support and advice including an Allergy Awareness Scheme (AAS) for industries which serve food, and a schools programme (SAAG) and you can find details of both on their website here. Other initiatives include the “Stop, look, ask and go” campaign to help toddlers learn about food and what is safe/not safe to eat.

Download and display information

Download the Allergy UK Early Years Factsheet here. This factsheet gives lots of useful advice and information on how to deal with allergies in your setting and can be printed out and pinned on the walls to increase awareness.

More information and advice

Free allergy place mat templates: https://www.parenta.com/free-allergy-placemat-templates/
Allergy UK helpline: 01322 619898
Allergy UK schools and early years specific webpages
NHS – food allergies
NHS food allergies in babies and young children
Statistics - https://www.allergyuk.org/about-allergy/statistics-and-figures

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