Sunday, 14 December 2014

Keeping allergic teens (and pre-teens) safe

Most people take eating out for granted. But for food allergy sufferers, a seemingly simple restaurant meal or takeaway can be a game of Russian roulette. It's not surprising that the fear of having a severe allergic reaction leads many people with a food allergy to eat only home-cooked meals. Hopefully though, this is set to change.

Since 13th December 2014, new EU regulations mean that food outlets have to provide allergen information on menus, chalkboards or information packs - and staff must be able to supply details about the ingredients in the foods they sell.  Fourteen allergens now have to be listed within the ingredients section and must be highlighted in some way (e.g. in bold), rather than having a separate allergen warning box.

Understandable this is causing some concern within the catering industry, as supplying the allergen information and, most importantly, keeping it up to date is no straightforward task. Suppliers change and menus vary, not to mention the extra staff training required.

As the mother of an 11 year old with nut allergy, I am hoping these new regulations will give me some peace of mind as my son steps out on his own. He is at an age where he wants to go out and about with the same freedom as his friends. However, there is always a nagging 'what if' feeling at the back of my mind. 

Even with the new rules in place, ultimately he still has to remember to read the menu carefully and/or ask whether the restaurant's chocolate ice cream, for example, contains peanut or pecan (the two nuts he is allergic to). And he also needs to carry his allergy medicines with him at all times (just in case).

As children reach the teenage years, there is a fine line between encouraging independence and keeping them safe. I don't want to be a neurotic mother or leave him feeling over-anxious. My son has been aware of the dangers since he was diagnosed at the age of four, and we have drummed into him the importance of checking the food he is about to eat. Fortunately, he hasn't had a food-related allergic reaction since he was diagnosed and has never had a severe reaction. But teenagers (and pre-teens) often feel under pressure to conform or take risks. I feel that he was safer at primary school, when I knew all of his friends and their mothers were aware of his allergy. When he went to parties, the food was always nut free. Now there's no guarantee.

So every so often, when he is about to leave the house, I remind him of the basic rules to follow:

1. Carry his medicines (anti-histamine and adrenaline pens) with him at all times - it doesn't matter whether he is out for the day or just popping to the park. It's not worth taking the risk. Rather than keeping his medicines loose in his pocket or school bag, he carries them in a medicine bag from YellowCross.

2. Practise using his adrenaline pens (I have a trainer dummy pen from the manufacturer).

3. Alert his friends and their parents to his allergy (without worrying them unnecessary). When he has a sleepover, for example, I would prefer it if the family doesn't have any peanut butter on the table at breakfast time.

4. Ensure he wears his allergy ID jewellery at all times, just in case we are not there in an emergency. My son wears his MedicAlert sports band on his wrist every day - even when he is swimming or playing sport. It's become a part of him and he even sleeps with it on. 

If you have a child with an allergy, you will want to keep them safe, healthy and independent. My book Allergies: A Parents' Guide (published by Need2Know Books) contains essential background information and practical advice. 

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