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My Friend Has a Food Allergy. How Can I Help?

Food allergies are common, and most of us know someone with an allergy. The most common food allergies are to peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. But other foods can also cause serious allergic reactions. 

A food that can cause a reaction in a person is called an allergen. The tricky thing is that these allergens often show up as ingredients in other foods you'd never think of. Soy makes its way into cereals and canned tuna. Some deli meat uses casein, a milk protein, to bind it together. That bowl of ice cream? It may actually contain wheat.

Even foods without allergens as listed ingredients can become contaminated if they are touched by someone who has handled the allergen, or are made on equipment also used for a food containing the allergen.

All this makes it hard work to watch out for foods that cause reactions.

That's where friends come in. If your friend has a food allergy, you can help make their life easier — without making the allergy the focus of your time together.

For someone with a food allergy, having supportive and accepting friends can make a big difference emotionally. Having supportive friends may even turn out to be life-saving.

What's a Friend to Do?

Here are some ways you can help:

Get the details. Find out which foods your friend is allergic to and what the symptoms of a reaction are. Symptoms like a rash, itching, throwing up, or trouble breathing can happen right away or take a little while after eating to show up. Learn how your friend has reacted to a food in the past. Sometimes the same allergy can show up differently at different times. The more familiar you are with what can happen, the easier it will be for you to identify triggers and take action if something starts to happen.

Two minds are better than one. Help your friend connect any physical symptoms to the possibility of a food allergy. For example, if you're headed to class after lunch and your friend feels sick or dizzy, it could be more than the flu — it might be a reaction to something they ate at lunch.

Take it seriously. Food allergies can be life-threatening. If you see your friend about to eat something you suspect will trigger an allergic reaction, speak up. This is extra important at times when a friend may be distracted or not paying attention. Drinking alcohol can sometimes interfere with a person's ability to make good decisions, for example.

If your friend starts to show symptoms, take action and get help. Trouble breathing, faintness, or throat tightness can be signs of anaphylaxis, a severe reaction that can lead to death if not treated. Get help for these symptoms right away.

Know what to do. Does your friend have an epinephrine auto-injector in case of a reaction? Where do they keep it? Find out what it looks like and how to use it so you can help if a serious reaction starts to happen. 

Don't share food. People with severe allergies need to be very careful about how food is prepared. So that turkey sandwich you made using the same knife as your brother's PB&J could spell trouble for your friend with a peanut allergy if you share. It's also a good idea to keep your utensils to yourself so you don't accidentally expose a friend to an allergen.

Wash your hands with soap and water after eating. We all know it's important to wash our hands before we eat. But washing up afterward is also important in case you've eaten something that might cause a friend to have a reaction. Lather up well with lots of soap and warm water. If you don’t have access to a sink, use a hand wipe instead of hand sanitizer because sanitizer liquids, gels, and sprays don't get rid of allergens.

It's not easy monitoring the labels and ingredients in everything. It can feel awkward to ask "What's in this?" at a friend's dinner table or feel like you're holding up the line in the cafeteria when you'd rather be enjoying the meal and social time. If you're not sure when to speak up or how to be helpful, ask your friend what they prefer.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date Reviewed: Jan 1, 2021

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