29/06/2015 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why We Need To Take Food Allergies Seriously

Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty Images
USA - 2007: Camille Weber color illustration of food felons - food allergy lineup which includes peanuts, shellfish, dairy and wheat; can go with stories about food allergies. (Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT via Getty Images)


Let's imagine this for a moment: You are up in the mountains vacationing in a picturesque resort. Outside your windows, snow-covered peaks are glistening in the hint of a morning sun. There is a knock on the door. It's room service with your complimentary breakfast, a delectable platter that will be served in your outdoor seating area.

All is going well except that you cannot actually eat your breakfast. Why not, you may ask.

Since we are imagining, let's take it a little further. You cannot eat it because you are allergic to the egg whites in the scramble and to the buttermilk (dairy) in the pancakes. This in turn means if you happen to eat it, within seconds you will be itchy, sore and inflamed. You can also get hives or blisters on your skin, feel dizzy, breathless and nauseous. Worse, you may even need to visit an ER.

It is as awful as it sounds. And I wish you never have to suffer like that. But many people do. My son does.

"[My son's] allergies have taught me to honour and accommodate people's food choices and preferences."

The suffering from the imaginary story that I just told you is a real part of his life and many others like him. I choose to tell his story for just one reason. Food allergies are life altering and could be life threatening too. It is not just another "fad" or a "trend". Being sensitive to certain foods is very different than having an allergic reaction to something.

I spent a night in the emergency ward of a hospital recently with my two-year-old doubled over with unbearable pain, all the skin on his inflamed body covered in monstrous blisters, while he suffered uncontrollable itching and restlessness. He was also breathless and vomiting bile.

A single accidental bite of cashew was the culprit. My son is severely allergic to nuts. But he is also a toddler and toddlers love to pick from the floor and eat. We cannot avoid all accidents but we try our best to do so.

I was ignorant about food allergies before my son was diagnosed. It was a long learning curve for us in the family. His allergies have taught me to honour and accommodate people's food choices and preferences.

An allergic reaction happens when the body's immune system misinterprets a food or a substance in it as a danger and thus overreacts. The most common allergens are dairy, eggs, fish, nuts, wheat and soy.

The reactions vary from person to person, ranging anywhere from mild itching to a life-threatening situation. Anaphylaxis, the most severe reaction can impair your breathing, cause a drop in the blood pressure and adversely affect the heart rate. If not treated timely, it could prove fatal.

It takes no guesswork to know if one is allergic to a certain food. There are tests available for diagnosis. Work with an allergist. The diagnosis can be made as early as when a child is few months old, as was the case with my son.

"Being sensitive to people with allergies is also about asking the right questions. I have seen kids being asked questions like 'Are you sure you cannot eat this thing?' or 'Will it ever get better?"

While some people still dismiss this condition as a storm in a teacup, the number of children diagnosed with food allergies is on the rise. In some cases it is inherited, in others it is not. Families that have members with food allergies make considerable changes around their household and eating habits to avoid potential triggers. Many schools are now mindful of this too and are taking steps such as having a "No Nut" table in the school cafeteria (nut being the most common food allergen). Several restaurants have an allergen-free menu.

Those living with food allergies themselves have an amazing self-restraint when choosing their food. I know some kids who can easily ignore cupcakes, cookies, even pizzas and happily gorge on a fresh fruit instead. I am sure it must not be easy for such young people to pretend that all the other goodies do not exist in the room. But they know what does not work for their body and choose wisely.

Being sensitive to people with allergies is also about asking the right questions. I have seen kids being asked questions like "So, how did you get allergies?" or "Why do you have allergies?" or "Are you sure you cannot eat this thing?" or "Will it ever get better?"

I have cringed and risen to their defence if the parent has not been around. It is a medical condition I explain and there are few raised eyebrows and looks of disbelief. "Oh! It's just a trend. Allergies!"

But for the most part, people listen and want to know and understand more. The most common question asked/discussed is how others could help.

Here are a few things everyone can do:

  1. When hosting a party, always ask if your guests have dietary restrictions and plan the menu accordingly. Try and plan the same menu for the entire gang. Don't make the person with allergies feel left out. There are always plenty of alternatives available.
  2. Candies are loaded with common allergens. Instead of sugar, give kids a goody bag with non-edible gifts. For example, at our home on Halloween we give away stationery, yo-yos, bouncy balls and glow sticks. Similarly, a set of books or a bouquet of flowers can be a fair replacement for a box of mithai (for anyone).
  3. An item processed in a facility that uses an allergen could easily cause an allergic reaction. So if a bakery baked nut free-cupcakes in a facility where they use nuts to bake other products, the nut free-cupcake could still cause a reaction. Packages of food often contain information telling you about the facility.
  4. Processed or canned food, artificial colours and some spice mixtures have complex ingredients that can trigger a reaction. It is best for everyone in general to stick to the natural and simple ingredients.
  5. Respect food choices and do not force a certain food if a person refuses to (allergic or not). Sometimes a single bite can cause harm.

This post has previously appeared on the author's blog - Chatoveracuppa