Coping With Fear When You Have a Food Allergy

Imagine knowing that if you eat the wrong thing, even one tiny, tiny bite, you might immediately feel sick and even vomit? Or worse than that, your throat might close and put you in a life-threatening situation. For those with food allergies, these fears are not make-believe, but the reality of how serious it can be to live with food allergies.

Shelled peanuts spilling out of a black metal lunchbox with a skull and cross bones on it

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While many will be able to avoid a life-threatening situation, others may not be as lucky. For someone who has unfortunately been exposed to the food allergen, this experience can plague them with fear. So what is one to do to help take the fear out of living with food allergies?

It is very important to understand your food allergy, and how to live safely and happily at the same time. Fortunately, with all of the education, testing, treatments, and support, it is easier than ever to live a normal life with food allergies.

Understand Your Allergy

It is most important that you have a true understanding of your food allergy upon diagnosis. Those diagnosed need to know what the food allergen is and what reactions may occur if exposed to that food. For some people the symptoms may be more mild, such as stomach upset or itchy eyes, while for others it can lead to stomach upset, vomiting, hives or even diarrhea.

Beyond that there are also cases where the allergic reaction can be life-threatening, eliciting an anaphylactic response. It is critical to know how severe your allergy is and to be prepared for an anaphylactic episode.

Understanding your allergy means to have an emergency plan already set up in the case of a reaction. It also means you have allergy medication on hand at all times, so that the reaction can be treated in a timely manner. And if someone you know has been diagnosed with a potential anaphylactic response to a food allergen, learning how to administer epinephrine is critical. Being prepared for any reaction can help dampen any fear you have.

Fear of the Unexpected

Being diagnosed with a food allergy can lead to a whole new level of living in fear. Parents can be afraid that their child will be exposed while at school or when they are not around. Others are afraid for themselves that something will be cross-contaminated. What will happen? How will I get help? Will my throat close? Will my kid be okay? It's normal for these questions and fears to go on and on.

Skipping social events, only eating at home, not telling others about your allergies and limiting one’s diet, are sometimes the result of this overwhelming fear. Many times this fear can lead to social anxiety and truly affect daily living.

While it is natural to have some fears about having a reaction, it is important to not let this fear grow bigger than necessary. It is important that entire families work together to educate everyone about the food allergy, its symptoms, reactions, and care plan if there is any exposure. This care plan is also important to share with caretakers, co-workers, educators, ​friends, and anyone who will have a consistent role in this person's life.

It is important to continue to educate those around you, update them on new developments regarding the allergy and always to be sure allergy medication is on hand in case of an emergency. Practicing drills on what to do in the case of emergencies, having alternative food options handy and keeping extra medication on hand will also eliminate fears.

Fear After the Experience

About every three minutes, an allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room. Swollen lips or tongues, difficulty breathing and a restricted airway as your throat is closing are all symptoms that may send you to the emergency room from exposure to a food allergen. This experience can be terrifying for both those with the allergy, as well as their family members. With the right medical care and attention, it is important to know that a full recovery will be made. However, for those going through this ordeal, there may be residual fears from this serious experience.

It is plausible that after this trip to the emergency room, there may be a heightened sense of panic, nervousness, and fear about this occurring again. It is important that close attention is paid to how you feel after this experience.

This can lead to post traumatic stress syndrome, in which you have a hard time putting the occurrence behind you. You may become fearful of social situations, may start to limit diet intake, become withdrawn and develop panic attacks. If this is not addressed, it can lead to failure to thrive, nutrient deficiencies, weight loss, excessive anxiety and even the development of eating disorders.

Knowing this, it is critical that after such a traumatizing experience from food allergen exposure that all of the person's fears are addressed. Talking about the experience, understanding what might have happened, discussing how to safeguard from it happening again, and being supportive of the person with food allergies is crucial.

It can help to talk with your physician, therapists, or nutritionists to help understand the fears. This situation should not be taken lightly, and it may take time for the person to feel safe again. This may require taking extra time to reeducate others on the food allergen in question and the development of a new emergency plan.

Ultimately the goal will be to soothe the fears and validate the concerns for food allergy exposure. In the end, diminishing the fears will help those with food allergies to resume living a healthy and happy life.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Krčmová I, Novosad J. Anaphylactic symptoms and anaphylactic shock. Vnitr Lek. 2019 Winter;65(2):149-156. English. PMID: 30909706

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  4. Lee Y, Chang HY, Kim SH, Yang MS, Koh YI, Kang HR, et al. A Prospective Observation of Psychological Distress in Patients With AnaphylaxisAllergy Asthma Immunol Res. 2020 May;12(3):496-506. doi:10.4168/aair.2020.12.3.496

By Marlo Mittler, MS, RD
Marlo Mittler, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian specializing in pediatric, adolescent, and family nutrition. She is the owner of NutritionByMarlo.