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February 18, 2015
by Dr. C. Wayne Winkle,Phd

Psychological Impact of Severe Food Allergies

February 18, 2015 07:55 by Dr. C. Wayne Winkle,Phd  [About the Author]

One of the great pleasures of life is sitting down and enjoying a great meal. Good food in a relaxed atmosphere is almost a tradition, no matter where you live.

But what if the food you eat, even accidentally, can kill you?

Having a food allergy can take away any pleasure from any meal. People with these kinds of potentially life-threatening allergies find themselves constantly wondering, “Is there something in this meal (or even in this restaurant) that might kill me if it gets in my system?” Parents of children with food allergies shoulder the responsibility of keeping those foods that might harm their children totally away from them. 

Hard to do in a public restaurant.

What is this allergic reaction to foods? It’s the immune system’s way of trying to protect the body from harmful foods. When a person eats some harmful substance and has one of these reactions, he or she is less likely to eat that substance again. But this protective mechanism can reach harmful levels itself.

What can happen to a person, young or old, who ingests some food that brings on an allergic reaction? These allergic reactions vary due to how sensitive the person is to the food, how much of the food is ingested, and other factors that may increase or decrease the current reaction (Teufel, et al., 2007). 

Possible reactions include swelling of the nose, mouth, and throat, along with runny nose, burning and tingling. Some reactions lead to eczema, whelps on the skin, and other dermatitis-type reactions. The person may experience nausea and vomiting or diarrhea. More severe reactions could include difficulty breathing, shock to the heart, and anaphylaxis. This latter reaction could lead to death and is rare.

There is no specific treatment for these food allergies and no known cure (Broome-Stone, 2012). How an anaphylactic response will play out from person to person can’t be predicted. The best way to treat food allergies is to totally avoid whatever food may bring on the response in the person affected. Should there be exposure to the food that triggers the allergic response, the best treatment is immediate self-injection with epinephrine. This needs to occur upon the first indication of an allergic response. 

How many Americans suffer from food allergies? The estimates vary. Part of this variance is due to some, possibly many, who claim to have food allergies but have never been professionally diagnosed with these allergies. They may have experienced some reaction after eating something, but this reaction may have been due to something other than the food ingested. 

Current estimates of those actually diagnosed with food allergies range from 6% to 8% of children in the U.S. under the age of 18. For adults over 18, the range is 1% to 4% (Teufel, et al., 2007). It is known that allergic reactions make up the fifth most common chronic disease in America, costing $3.4 billion yearly (Holland, 2008). Whatever the actual number of cases of food allergies, there appears to have been a significant increase in food allergies over recent years. In the decade 1997 to 2007, an 18% increase in food allergies in the under 18 age range was noted (Broome-Stone, 2012). Over a four year span ending in 2002, a doubling of reported peanut allergies took place (Cummings, et al., 2010). 

Psychological Effects of Food Allergies on Children & Youth

Children and youth with food allergies may not realize they are allergic until the sudden onset of allergy response symptoms. Such fast occurrence brings on feelings of threat and insecurity (Teufel, et al., 2007). Following that, these children and youth have to live with fear and uncertainty, along with constant watchfulness regarding what they eat.

Studies in the United States and other countries have pointed to the emotional impact of food allergies on children and youth. A study from South Africa (Pharma Dynamics, 2013) found significant levels of shyness, stress, frustration, and isolation among 800 students interviewed. These findings were considered a major stumbling block to emotional well-being. 

Children have been shown to experience fear related to the possibility of an allergic reaction, as well as anxiety connected to eating itself (Teufel, et al., 2007). The restriction imposed on children with food allergies is also difficult for them to handle. There is some speculation that restrictions on food intake due to possible allergic reactions may lead to eating disorders later in life.

Clearly, quality of life suffers in children and youth with these allergies. One reported study showed children with allergies to ingestion of peanuts to have a lower quality of life than children with insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (Cummings, et al., 2010). 

Family activities like shopping and eating out become fear-producing events for children with food allergies due to the uncertainty of whether eating places may contain foods to which they are allergic. In some instances, the allergies may reach the level of severity that prevents those who suffer from them from even entering certain restaurants. Just the presence of the foods to which they are allergic is sufficient to trigger a response. 

While schools in particular are becoming more aware of the significance of food allergies for some children, participation in school activities may still be limited for these children. They may not be allowed to participate in parties because of the possibility of some parents not being aware of their allergies. If schools are very aware, there may be restrictions on what food can be brought to school due to the possibility of children sharing some foods that may trigger allergic reactions. The children who do not have the allergic response may blame those who do have it for not getting to have parties like other schools are allowed to do. This brings on feelings of guilt in the children with food allergies. The possibility of bullying of the allergy-prone children is increased, as well.

Adolescents in particular may respond negatively to the social impact of their food allergies. Not being a part of the popular crowd due to potential for allergic responses is a significant blow to adolescent egos. Having others not understand the reasons they cannot participate in some activities is difficult for adolescents to handle. If the adolescent should ever have an allergic response in front of his or her peers, the resulting shame and embarrassment could become the stepping stone to depression.

Psychological Effects of Food Allergies on Parents & Families

It may be that the effects of food allergies are greater on parents than on the children who suffer from them. Parents feel they must be on guard every minute to protect their children from possibly fatal reactions to foods, substances human beings need to survive. This constant vigilance wears down the strongest parent. This can lead to significant stress. Stressed parents may respond in ways that cause stress on their children. And, depending on the type of allergic response their children have, this stress may make that response worse. It’s easy to see the vicious cycle that can result. In any case, the parents’ reaction can lead to guilt on their part.

Thus, it’s easy to see how food allergies and their consequences bring significant upheaval in families.

And there are other ways these upheavals show themselves. Parents may have significant difficulty in separating from their children with food allergies (Cummings, et al., 2010). This may lead to parents going with their children to parties, outings, and other social situations long beyond the time when other parents accompany their children. Certainly this behavior sets up the family for considerable awkwardness in these social situations. As children get older and see how their parents are different from other parents, they may experience anger and embarrassment.

Parents will feel significant concern over not being able to supervise their children in school. This is one place their children must attend without them. They will not be present to deal with any possible reactions (Cummings, et al., 2010). Worry and apprehension will manifest themselves very significantly. 

Parents have to deal with the seemingly all-consuming demands on their time and the energy they spend handling their child’s food allergy (Broome-Stone, 2012). This is in addition to the fears plaguing parents regarding the possibility of their child dying from a reaction to foods. The financial load for families can become tremendous, as well. This comes from hospitalizations, continued outlay for medications, and possibly having to buy more expensive foods for their child, depending on the severity of the food allergy. There is also the uncertain future for their child that parents are called on to consider.

All of these, and more, lead to marital strain from the stress. Social and emotional isolation can result. 

New Research – Possible Key To Cure?

The dramatic rise in peanut allergies recently makes some new research from Australia even more promising (Tang, et al., 2015). In the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, researchers fed children with documented peanut allergies a probiotics along with daily peanut protein. This dosage was increased over an 18-month period.

Eighty percent of the children in the research group were able to eat peanuts with no reaction at the end of the trial. Whether this response will last is yet to be seen. More research on a long term basis is needed. However, this may be the first step to developing a cure for food allergies.

Previous research using probiotics and prebiotics (administering probiotic bacteria before birth) has seen varied and sometimes confusing results. The idea behind using probiotics to combat food allergies is for the probiotics to be given to very young children whose digestive systems are not fully developed. A large part of the immune system is governed by the developing gut. By giving very young children probiotics that help the immune system develop, researchers are hopeful that the resulting stronger immune system will stave off allergic reactions to foods.

Some Helpful Ideas

Information and education are tools that will help both parents and the children with food allergies. Staying connected with others who are going through the same experience provides a much-needed social connection as well as helping those affected stay informed about the latest in treatment.

Parents can use the anxiety and fear associated with the possible results of food allergies to stay prepared to deal with any allergic responses. Communicate with others about the food allergies and possible negative consequences of allergic responses. 

Always carry or have the child carry more than one autoinjector pen. This is in case one is out of date or won’t work. Sometimes, more than one injection is necessary to stop severe reactions.

Parents should always read ingredient labels on food. This needs to become second nature. 

Making the choice to be careful and stay prepared can help avoid some of the worry that comes with the possibility of a severe reaction to food.

Keeping a journal of possible reactions can help to know what to avoid. Parents need to keep in mind children and their responses can change as they grow older. Journals can help keep track of these changes and help children learn to handle their allergies better themselves. 


Broome-Stone, S. B. (2012). The psychosocial impact of life-threatening childhood food allergies. Pediatric Nursing, 38(6):327-330.

Cummings, A. J., et al. (2010). The psychosocial impact of food allergy and food hypersensitivity in children, adolescents and their families: a review. Allergy, 65:933-945.

Holland, E. (2008). Stress, anxiety can make allergy attacks even more miserable and last longer. The Ohio State University Research News, August 11.

Pharma Dynamics. (2013). Allergies take psychological toll on SA learners. Retrieved from

Tang, M. L. et al. (2015). Administration of a probiotic with peanut oral immunotherapy: a randomized trial. J Allergy Clin Immunol, pii: S0091-6749(14)01737-0. (epub ahead of print). 

Teufel, M. et al. (2007). Psychological burden of food allergy. World J Gastroenterol, 13(25): 3456-3465.


About the Author

C. Wayne Winkle C. Wayne Winkle

C. Wayne Winkle is a board-certified family psychologist with thirty years experience in the field. He earned his doctorate at Texas A&M University at Commerce where he wrote the major portion of a National Institute of Mental Health grant for the university. As a writer, he has published four novels with another on the way. His freelance writing also includes blog posts, web copy, sales letters, fundraising letters, and grant proposals for non-profits. He lives with his wife Vicki in Arkansas.

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