Q: My 10-year-old with allergies to dairy, egg and peanut had an anaphylactic reaction four months ago and has been eating like a bird since. She refuses to try any food she hasn’t eaten before. Have you got any suggestions so I can help her to get over fearfulness around food?
Dr. Sharma: After experiencing anaphylaxis, it is not unusual for children, and even adults, to develop fear around food.
So, your daughter is certainly not alone. Some degree of anxiety is normal after anaphylaxis, and can actually help a child be more vigilant about avoiding allergens.
But that fear becomes a concern when it interferes with quality of life. For example, if anxiety is leading to malnutrition or decreased participation in school and social activities, then it warrants attention.
The good news is that there are several steps you can take to help your daughter work through her fear. First, having her talk about her feelings, the recent reaction, and specific fears is important. A support group setting sometimes allows children to feel less alone and open up about what worries them.
Knowledge is also a great way to counter fearful feelings. Meeting with your child’s allergist can help her to better understand her food allergies and put the risk of anaphylaxis into perspective. If the anxiety continues to be consuming, it can be helpful to equip a child with coping mechanisms for the moments when fear takes over.
A counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders can teach specific coping strategies, such as guided imagery and relaxation or breathing techniques.
While overcoming these fears is not always easy, praising children for taking small steps in the right direction can give them a sense of achievement. Ultimately, the goal is for children to realize that food allergy shouldn’t stop them from living life to the fullest.
Dr. Sharma is an allergist, clinical researcher and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics. He is Associate Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C. and Director of the Food Allergy Program. He co-authors “The Food Allergy Experts” column in the American Edition of Allergic Living magazine. Questions submitted below will be considered for answer in the magazine.