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Managing Food Allergies During COVID-19

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

Having to worry about your or your child's food allergies during this already scary time can be anxiety-inducing. Should I go to the hospital if I have an allergic reaction during this time? Are hospitals even safe? These are a couple of the questions I've had recently. When I found out FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) was putting on a webinar dedicated to food allergy safety during COVID-19, I knew I needed to attend. The webinar included Dr. Anna Nowak-Wegrzyn, a pediatrician who is board-certified in allergy and immunology, and Dr. Carina Venter, a registered dietitian and an Associate Professor of Pediatrics in Colorado. I want to share the key things that I learned from the webinar in case you missed it to hopefully clarify and quell some of the concerns you may have.

What do I do if I'm having an allergic reaction during this time?

Dr. Nowak-Wegrzyn emphasized that if you think you or your child is having anaphylaxis, to administer epinephrine. The sooner you use epinephrine, the better the outcome will be. Normally, doctors advise that once you use epinephrine to call 911 and receive hospital treatment. FARE recently put out an updated anaphylaxis action plan to lessen the burden on overwhelmed hospitals during this pandemic. They recommend that if you have one severe symptom or more than one mild symptom to inject epinephrine while seated with your legs elevated, to be close to a phone and doorway to allow others in, to take a non-sedating oral antihistamine, and to take an albuterol inhaler if available. FARE recommends that if your symptoms do not improve within five minutes, to administer a second epinephrine injection and then monitor your symptoms closely. If after the second dose of epinephrine severe symptoms do not improve, call 911.

As you can see from the plan, it is important to have an up-to-date supply of at least two epinephrine auto-injectors. But understandably, I know a lot of people wouldn't feel comfortable playing the role of medical professionals if they or their child was having a severe allergic reaction. For people who have had severe anaphylactic reactions in the past that required multiple doses of epinephrine, it may be best to go to the hospital immediately after administering the first dose on your own. In my opinion, if you don't feel comfortable carrying out this plan at home, then call 911 if you are presenting symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Is it safe to administer epinephrine to myself in the event of anaphylaxis if I am completely alone?

The doctors said that it is safe to administer epinephrine to yourself but it is important to find someone who can help monitor your symptoms and care for you, especially if your symptoms do not improve. If you live by yourself and are having an allergic reaction, if possible, contact someone nearby that can come to you. If you decide to follow the modified anaphylaxis plan and monitor your symptoms at home, it's important to have someone who can help you in the event that you have a biphasic reaction--a severe, delayed reaction that can occur hours after the initial one. Personally, if I was still living by myself and didn't have friends nearby, I would call 911 if I was having an anaphylactic reaction. In the past, I have had severe anaphylactic reactions and wouldn't feel comfortable trying to manage that on my own.

I'm having a hard time finding my usual allergy-friendly foods. What should I do?

It can be frustrating to not be able to find the products and brands that you trust during this time. I know everyone has different situations, but, now is an amazing time to cook--especially if you are not familiar with it! Making your own meals from scratch with simple ingredients like veggies and beans takes some of the guesswork out of figuring out whether a processed/pre-packaged food is safe for you or others. There are so many allergy-friendly blogs and recipes out there (like my red lentil curry) that are easy to follow and delicious.

Another important tip I've learned from my own experience that was reiterated in the webinar is to always read the ingredients. For instance, if you have a severe milk allergy like me, don't trust a product that has a "vegan" label on the front without reading the ingredients. In the US, companies are required to list the top allergens a product contains or may have come into contact with. The "vegan" label can be misleading as it allows for detectable trace amounts of allergens like milk to remain in the food, which is extremely dangerous for those of us with allergies. Also, by always checking ingredient lists, you might find some unexpectedly allergy-friendly foods.

I'm having a more difficult time reaching companies to see whether their product is safe for me. Any advice?

During this time, it's expected that there will be longer wait-times and difficulty getting in touch with companies. I know this is extremely frustrating for those of us who are shopping for people with food allergies because when trying new products, we often rely on contacting companies directly to determine whether something is safe or not. Unfortunately, the only options right now are to be patient and play it safe when possible. I am a huge proponent of trying new things to help reduce some of the fear that comes with having food allergies, but if you have a question about a product's label and are unable to get in contact with the company, I would not risk it. It's always best to stay cautious.

I want to use a personal online shopper but have food allergies. What should I do?

If you are using a personal shopper or an online shopping app, it's important to clarify in the written instructions what your allergies are. Provide detailed instructions on what phrases to watch out for, like "May Contain" for example. If possible, specify brands of products that you know are safe. If there is no place for you to tell your shopper about your allergy, it may be best to stick to simple foods like produce.

How can I safely order restaurant delivery?

To safely order restaurant delivery through an app like UberEats or Foodora, I'd suggest calling the restaurant before placing your order to talk about your allergy and see whether the restaurant can safely make your meal. If the restaurant can accommodate you, then place the order on the delivery app and in the special instructions box for each dish, clearly label your allergies. When you call, it may be a good idea to tell the restaurant your name and that you are ordering off of a delivery app so that they know what to look for and you can add your name to the special instructions box along with detailed instructions about keeping your food away from any potential allergens.

I hope that this article helped answer some of the questions you or your loved ones may have. I know that this is a scary time and is affecting some people more than others but I hope that you are all staying safe and being as responsible as you can. If you are struggling during this time with anything, don't hesitate to reach out to me. My direct messages on Instagram @tsoyum are always open. ❤️

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