Kids' Food Allergies Take Toll on Parents

Parents take special care to tend to their kids’ food allergies, new research shows.

About 2 percent to 8 percent of children have food allergies. Some food allergies can be severe and even life-threatening. People with food allergies must strictly avoid their trigger foods, and that means extra work for parents of kids with food allergies, note the University of Maryland’s Mary Bollinger, DO, and colleagues.

Bollinger’s team studied 87 families with children treated at the University of Maryland Allergy Practice for food allergies. Parents completed a survey covering topics including grocery shopping, meal preparation, and kids’ social activities.

Most parents reported that their child’s food allergy significantly affected meal preparation, grocery shopping, and social activities. The study appears in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Problem Foods: Is It Allergy or Intolerance?

Detailed Data

Most of the children in Bollinger’s study were allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, or shellfish. On average, they avoided four foods due to food allergies, the study shows.

Results from the parents’ survey include:

--71 percent said their child’s food allergy significantly affected meal planning for that child.

--60 percent said their child’s food allergy significantly affected meal planning for the whole family.

--76 percent said their child’s food allergy significantly affected grocery shopping. Nearly eight in 10 said their child’s food allergy significantly affected family trips to restaurants. The more food allergies a child had, the greater impact those allergies had on family life.

Shopping, cooking, and eating weren’t the only areas of concern that stood out in the surveys. Kids’ food allergies also had a major social impact, Bollinger’s team finds.

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Social Consequences

Out-of-home activities -- including birthday parties, camp, school field trips, and sleepovers at friends’ houses -- were often affected by kids’ food allergies, the survey shows.

One in 10 parents said they homeschooled their child because of the child’s food allergies. Other parents said they avoided letting their child take part in these activities:

--Playing at friends’ houses: 11 percent

--Day care or after-school care: 14 percent

--School parties or birthday parties: 10 percent

--Sleepovers at friends’ houses: 26 percent

--Camp: 26 percent

While relatively few parents totally banned those activities, many noted that their child’s food allergy had significantly affected those activities.

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Control Is Key

Bollinger’s team writes that a “large” number of participants -- 34 percent to 68 percent -- noted that food allergy significantly affected school activities. Also, half or more noted significant food-allergy impact on social activities outside the home.

“Unless the child brings their ‘safe’ foods with them to outside events, the families are relying on others (as well as their child) to have sufficient knowledge of label reading and cross-contamination issues to provide a safe diet,” write Bollinger and colleagues.

“The reality is that even in the most careful and educated environments, most food allergic children have exposures that lead to reactions,” the researchers continue.

Most Americans Allergic to 1 or More Triggers

Next Steps

Some kids in the study also had asthma and skin allergies, but that didn’t change the results, the researchers write. Bollinger’s team suggests that future research should check how food allergies -- and related social restrictions -- affect kids.

Meanwhile, a journal editorial calls Bollinger’s study “groundbreaking.”

The survey, designed by Bollinger’s team, is an “exciting new tool that will help to better evaluate needs and tailor care for food-allergic children and their families,” write editorialists Stacie Jones, MD, and Amy Scurlock, MD.

Jones and Scurlock work in Little Rock, Ark., at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Bollinger, M. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, March 2006; vol 96: pp 415-421. Jones, S. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, March 2006; vol 96: pp 385-385. News release, American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.