For Megan Austin and parents like her, the holiday season is time to go on high alert.

Her 7-year-old daughter, Blake, has a life-threatening, and increasingly common, food allergy. And it’s hard to know which piece of holiday candy, baked dessert or vegetable dish will set it off, said Austin, who lives in Brunswick.

“It’s a triple whammy. We have Halloween going right into Thanksgiving going right into Christmas,” Austin said. “I guess I would call the holidays a triple threat because most of the activities are centered around food.”

Food allergies such as Blake Austin’s – she is allergic to sesame, sunflower and other seeds – appear to be increasing and affect millions of children nationwide.

On Monday, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases issued new guidelines for diagnosing and managing food allergies. While the report offers no breakthroughs on the causes of the dangerous reactions, doctors and parents such as Austin said the guidelines will help to educate the public and the medical community about how to keep kids safe.

“It kind of pulls together a lot of things that we (allergists) have been seeing and talking about in meetings,” said Dr. Andrew Carey, an allergy specialist in Falmouth.

For example, the new guidelines say blood tests are not always reliable, and can lead to over-diagnosis. Allergists tend to rely more on past reactions, skin tests and even food challenges, which involve giving patients minute amounts of suspected food items to test the reaction.

“If the (other) tests are negative, it’s nice to do a food challenge too, so the patient feels comfortable that they can go out and eat the food,” Carey said.

The report’s core recommendations to prevent and treat food allergies remain the same as they were before: Avoid foods that cause allergic reaction and treat allergic reactions with epinephrine.

Avoiding foods is a challenge year-round for children and their parents, especially right now.

“There are more pies and candies. People are cooking and going out more,” said Dr. Ivan Cardona, a Portland-based allergist with Allergy and Asthma Associates of Maine. “I definitely see more accidental reaction at that time of year.”

Linda Strickland’s son Charlie is allergic to dairy products, eggs and peanuts – three common food allergies among kids. Even touching food residue on a table can set off a dangerous reaction.

They have to be extra careful around the holidays, even at family gatherings, said Strickland, who lives in Bath.

“Either I make all the food or I work closely with my mother,” she said. “I’m usually in charge of desserts because the desserts are the hardest part.”

Strickland said that getting the latest information out is important, especially for parents who have to keep up with the science and educate teachers and family members.

Austin said she welcomes the new guidelines, too.

She also wishes researchers had more answers.

“My husband was born in 1970 and had multiple severe food allergies, and no one knew the causes or cures,” she said. “Thirty years later, his daughter was born with food allergies and the medical community still doesn’t know.

“I hope that if my granddaughter is born and has them, that we know what causes them and that maybe we have a cure.”


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jric[email protected]