You have just received a life changing diagnosis of food allergies. You probably left your doctor's office with a stack of papers and the feeling that there is a lot to learn. Start here with these steps:
- Confirm your allergy diagnosis
- Learn to avoid your trigger foods
- Be prepared for future reactions
- Find support
1. Confirm your allergy diagnosis
No allergy testing is 100 percent accurate. If you were diagnosed with a skin prick or blood test, your doctor probably told you that there is a possibility of a false positive, in which the test may say you are allergic to a food that is not a problem for you. To confirm that you are actually allergic to identified foods, there may be follow-up tests or things you need to do at home.
Elimination and challenge. Your doctor may suggest that you follow an elimination diet, which means completely removing the suspected allergen(s) from your diet for a period of time and then reintroducing it to see if it is the cause of your symptoms. This is generally done when the cause of your reactions is unclear.
Reintroducing a suspect food is called a challenge. Never try a food challenge without your doctor's supervision. Call your doctor's office if you need more information about your diet.
Further testing. If you were diagnosed with a food allergy using an alternative testing procedure, such as an arm strength test, you should seek out a board-certified allergist to confirm the results. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology considers IgG testing, applied kinesiology (arm strength tests), and hair analysis to be "unproven," which means that the results are not accurate enough for use in diagnosis.
2. Learn to avoid your trigger foods
Avoiding trigger foods can be challenging. It seems so simple on the surface - milk is milk, right? But our food comes from many sources, and simple ingredients can be called by many names.
Be a label detective. Allergens can lurk in surprising foods (who knew there was milk in canned tuna?) and under surprising names. Learn to read labels for your specific trigger foods. Read them every time, even if you are buying a product that you ate yesterday. Manufacturers often change their ingredients. Carry a list of your trigger foods and all their associated ingredient names with you when you go shopping.
Handle food safely. Avoid cross contamination. If you use the same knife to spread peanut butter on one sandwich and mustard on the next, the second sandwich will be contaminated with peanuts. Everyone you live with will need to learn safe food handling. Get everyone in the habit of washing their hands after eating.
Learn smart substitutes. A little time spent in the kitchen experimenting with food substitutions and you will realize that it is possible to make your egg-free cake and eat it too. There are many great allergy-friendly food products in grocery stores these days, but cooking for yourself is both safe and satisfying.
Ask questions. Learning how to eat out and travel safely is largely a matter of learning to ask lots and lots of questions. What kind of oil do you fry this in? Are the French fries in the same oil as the fish? Is this a peanut-free flight? Always call ahead to a restaurant or airline to be sure that they are aware of and can accommodate your needs. If you are not satisfied with an answer you are given, ask to speak to a manager or the chef.
3. Be prepared for future reactions
Build your medical team. Food allergies are a chronic illness. You need the support and oversight of a doctor (or doctors) that you trust. Depending on your diagnosis, you may need a pediatrician, primary care physician, an allergist/immunologist, and/or a gastroenterologist (GI doctor).
Create a first aid kit. If you have been diagnosed with severe food allergies (anaphylaxis), you should carry a first aid kit with you at all times. Your kit should contain:
- An Epi-pen, as prescribed by your doctor.
- Antihistamine, in an easy-to-swallow form such as a liquid or melt strip.
- A copy of your prescription.
- Emergency contact information: Names and phone numbers of your doctor or allergist and people who should be contacted in case of an emergency.
Train helpers. You can't do it alone. Your family, school, or workplace will need to work together to avoid cross contamination. Teach your family members, teachers, or co-workers to recognize the signs of a severe allergic reaction and how to give emergency first aid.
4. Seek support
A new diagnosis can feel scary or overwhelming, and living with food allergies can be stressful. But you are not alone. Find a local or online support group to help you adjust to your new reality. TheFood Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network has a search form for local support groups.
Brenstein, L, et al. Allergy Diagnostic Testing - an Updated Practice Parameter. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, March 2008; 100:S1-S148.
Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-282, Title II) Accessed: June 20, 2010. http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/FoodAllergensLabeling/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/ucm106187.htm
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