This post was originally published in Oct of 2008 as a part of Shannon's What I'd Like for You to Know series on her Rocks in My Dryer blog. Since the post, my son, David, had a reaction to a cake mix (that was not labeled to include peanuts). You can read about that reaction here: Cake Wreck. I am republishing this post because it contains a lot of great info about the challenges we face with food allergies.
What I'd Like For You To Know: Dealing with Food Allergies in a Child
I had an eventful morning at church this past Sunday. Our church has a “Children’s Time” where the children go down front and are presented with a quick lesson. After the lesson, they go to another room for a children’s program. This week the pastor decided to use a Trick-or-Treat illustration to talk about sharing. He began by handing out paper bags to the kids. Then he pulled out a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups. That’s the moment I stopped paying attention to the story. My husband jumped up and got our son out of the group. I bolted out the door. All I could think was, “I have to get the antibacterial wipes out of the car!” It wasn’t entirely rational but I was in protection mode. I didn’t know if the kids already had the candy or not and in a matter of seconds I was imagining trying wash (or at least wipe) the hands of about 20 kids. I flew to my car in a frenzy, found the wipes and located a bag of Dum Dum lollipops. I bounded back up the church steps 2 or 3 at a time, breezed down the aisle and plopped the bag of lollipops on the podium. When I sat down in my seat, I was shaking. I felt a bit like Superwoman and a lot like a crazy woman. From behind me, I heard someone say: “Someone has a peanut allergy.” I quickly found out that several people in the congregation had stopped the pastor from handing out the peanut butter candy.
My 5-year-old son, David, has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts. If you are not familiar with food allergies, it may sound strange to hear that a food can be life threatening. It can be and it is for my son.
I want everyone to know: A true food allergy is a very serious condition. A food allergy is extremely different from a food intolerance (such as lactose intolerance) or a food sensitivity. A true food allergy is an immune system response to a food that the body mistakenly believes is harmful. The body creates antibodies to the food. When a severely food-allergic person eats even a tiny amount of the food to which he is allergic his immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals and histamines. Symptoms, which can begin within seconds of exposure to the allergen, can range from mild (such as a few hives on the face) to an extreme, potentially fatal reaction known as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can make one or more bodily systems go haywire. The biggest danger is that the person’s throat can swell shut, his blood pressure can drop rapidly, and he can literally “drop dead” – all within minutes of ingesting even the smallest amount of allergen. There currently is no cure for this type of food allergy, and the only course of action is complete avoidance of the offending foods.
When I first found out David had food allergies, I did not realize what it meant for my son, for myself and my family. In the beginning, David was allergic to fish, wheat, eggs, and peanuts. The allergist told us he appeared to be outgrowing the wheat, egg and fish allergies. By age 2, he had outgrown those allergies. I did not realize the seriousness of his peanut allergy. I still had peanut butter in the house. I still made peanut butter sandwiches for my older child. I did not grasp the chance I was taking. When I look back, I am grateful that nothing happened during that time.
Let me tell you a bit about our day-to-day battle with my son’s peanut allergy. Our home is now peanut-free. I read food labels constantly. Grocery shopping requires reading labels. I must always check the ingredients. Some products have allergy warnings and some just list the ingredients. I cannot think “once safe, always safe.” Companies change food production. One of David’s worst experiences was when he had some crackers that had previously been safe. He had hives for 4 days because they “contained traces of peanuts.” Just knowing an item doesn’t contain nuts is not enough. Food that is made on the same equipment where nuts have been processed posses a risk. We cannot get anything from a grocery store bakery (or any bakery). Going to a birthday party usually means bringing an individual cupcake for David. He cannot have store bought cake. Even if it is homemade, he cannot have the cake if I don’t know if the mix has a peanut warning. Eating out is challenging, to say the least.
I appreciate efforts by friends and family to keep David safe. There are times when I know that people have tried to avoid peanut products but I still don’t feel comfortable letting David eat the food. Without knowing the ingredients first-hand, I cannot trust that an item does not contain nuts or contain a product that has a peanut warning. I am gracious and appreciative but I cannot take any chances. When his allergy is forgotten (like at church), I do not feel angry. I do not expect other people to protect him. I may appear panicked or emotional, but I am not upset with anyone.
I want you to know that parents of allergic children do not have all the answers about food allergies and protecting their children. We are constantly learning.
I ask you not to share frightening stories. (I have had people at different times tell me they knew someone that died from a peanut allergy.) Parents of allergic children do not need to be reminded of the worst-case scenario.
Please be understanding if you try to make something allergen free and the allergic person is still not comfortable eating the item. Above all, an allergic person has to be safe and cannot take risks.
I want you to understand that we do not want to inconvenience anyone; we only want to protect our child.
It has been impossible to protect my son from all peanut contact. He has been exposed to peanuts through physical contact. He was exposed from a child booster seat (at a restaurant that served PB&J to kids). He was exposed at an airport (touched something that someone who had eaten peanuts had touched and then rubbed his eye). He was exposed in a kid cart at Wal-Mart. He has been exposed at a friend's house. Contact exposure (except when rubbed in his eye) has so far caused hives.
My son has not had a life-threatening reaction. But that does not mean that he does not have a life-threatening allergy. He has only ingested a tiny amount of a peanut product (peanut butter) once. With every exposure to an allergen, a body is going to fight the allergen more. One mild reaction does not guarantee another mild reaction. There is no way to know the intensity of the next reaction. David has had allergy tests yearly. The tests indicate his allergy is only getting more intense. He is required to have an EpiPen (an auto-injector of epinephrine used to treat anaphylactic shock) with him at all times.
Before I found out about my son’s peanut allergy, food allergies didn't mean anything to me. Now, I am constantly aware of the possible danger. I do all I can to education myself. I pray for my son’s safety and I pray not to be overwhelmed with fear.
I hope that this glimpse of our struggle with a food allergy makes you more aware.