Food Allergies- Have the Conversation.

In 2007, our lives changed forever. Our oldest daughter was diagnosed with anaphylaxis, related to food allergies, just as she just turned 2 years old.

A food allergy is when the body’s immune system mistakenly thinks a food protein is a harmful agent, and attacks it. Anaphylaxis is a life threatening allergic reaction. The immune system’s response is an immediate, full body reaction; like it’s in a war to get rid of it. Symptoms can develop within seconds to up to 2 hours, and can vary in any order, and not necessarily every one, from: abdominal pain, skin conditions (like eczema) worsen, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing, itching of the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, or any other area, drop of blood pressure, light-headedness or fainting, nasal congestion, nausea, runny nose, swelling, especially of the eyelids, face, lips, and tongue, shortness of breath, stomach cramps, vomiting, itchy lips, tongue, and throat, and sometimes swollen lips. Scary right?

Not till 1996, when I met my husband, did I know anyone who had a food allergy. And now that I think of it, that goes for my family, too. It was so foreign a concept; ‘eating something makes you sick? WTH? That sucks! But here, (as I shove my hand closer to his face) try some of this food (that has your allergen all over it) it’s so good. You’re missing out.’. <- True story. As you can tell, I wasn’t aware of food allergies, or how grave a situation it could be. As he experiences anaphylaxis, too.

Nowadays, chances are even if you are a parent of a child that doesn’t have food allergies, you are related to someone with an allergy, are neighbors with someone who has food allergies, or, your child goes to school with someone who does. Or all of the above. After looking it up, 1 in 13 children have food allergies in the US. That is about 3 million children across this nation!  The top offenders of food allergies are milk, eggs, nuts (ground and tree nuts), fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.

Food allergies can come from ANY food, and it can happen to anyone at anytime in their life… even if food allergies don’t run in their family. I experienced a temporary food allergy once when I was pregnant with my oldest in 2005. I had heard of pregnancy related allergies to skin products, clothing, or food before; but never thought it’d happen to me since allergies don’t run in my family. I was craving pineapples all the time..and yogurt, and chocolate milk, and cookies, and donuts, and… everything! One day, I grabbed my Tupperware of pineapple chunks from the fridge. Waddled to the couch to devour the whole thing. As I started to chew, my mouth got super hot, itchy and my tongue felt swollen and as if it had pins and needles. I immediately panicked thinking more was to follow. Though the symptoms went away and never surfaced again, I was spooked for the remainder of the pregnancy; and even two years later, when I was pregnant with my youngest, I stayed away. Once my children were born, I could eat pineapple again like normal! Such a strange phenomena.

To show how serious an issue food allergies can be, or how serious people should take them, I am sharing this link that a friend posted recently on FB. It’s to an article that truly touched upon the fears I have regarding my daughter’s allergies and her friends as they grow up. The article is about an 18 year old boy, diagnosed at 8 year old with anaphylaxis to all nuts. This boy was hanging out with friends and was handed a bag of cookies. His friend taste tested a cookie, and said it had no nuts, so the boy dove in and started eating them, too. And. Well. That 18 year old boy, a few hours after eating the cookies, lost his life from anaphylactic shock. My heart just sank typing that out. Why didn’t the boy read the package’s ingredient list? Why didn’t he question that friends’ answer?? It blows my mind that an 18 year old with this type of condition could be so careless. This is what scares me. Our daughter being careless, or making a mistake like that when she is older.

My husband and I are the responsible party for our daughter, forever, but we can’t be around her 24/7. The schools’ staff, or, family members, caring for her can only make sure the allergen is not in her vicinity, through nut-free classrooms, eliminating it from family events, or notifying everyone about her allergen, and, also knowing to rush her to the hospital if she exhibits allergy reactions. But, as with any human being, and how that happened to that 18 year old, errors can be made.

How can we keep her safe? There has to be our daughter’s responsibility into play here. For her to not eat what makes her sick. Like the boy in that article. Why did he eat those damn cookies? Didn’t he think about his life? We can’t rely on everyone to look out for her safety. We can only equip them with information and an Epi-Pen. Living with food allergies is all my daughter knows, and, she has shown us that she is extremely aware of her surroundings when it comes to eating. She told us she never wants to have a reaction, and wants to never use an Epi. So, we told her. The only way to not experience anaphylaxis is to stay away from the food/things that give you a reaction. That is what she does. If she sees me eating a bowl of cereal, she asks what type of cereal it is if she can’t see the box. If I say, something like, Banana Nut Crunch, she immediately, without question, stays clear. Basically backs up in fear. Treats me like I am, in essence, tainted. She reminds me to wash my hands before touching her or anything, and isn’t satisfied until I do it. Oh, also, states that I am not allowed to hug or kiss her till I brush my teeth. At times, it’s to the point of almost annoying (I wouldn’t have it any other way though.). I applaud her often, even if the situation doesn’t call for that type of stringent thinking. She knows her health and life are at play all the time.

… Let me note that, even though we had nut products in the house after her anaphylaxis was diagnosed, I didn’t eat them or keep them accessible with her nearby till she turned 5. For her safety, I wanted to ensure she had to never fear me or eating in her home. As she got older, and was soon to be introduced into a world of all types of food, I reintroduced it into my life and taught her to stay away. If my husband had nut products in the house, as he isn’t allergic to them, they were placed on high shelves where no one could reach them or accidentally be taken by her.

As you can see, food allergies are serious. Anaphylaxis is life threatening. My child is that kid in your kid’s class. She is the reason for nut-free classrooms. The reason you can’t send in that PB&J, or, packaged cereal bar claiming to be processed in a nut facility. It’s to protect the lives of the children with food allergies. And like I mentioned, it can happen to anyone at anytime.. So, if there is anything I can stress from reading all this is it’s have this conversation with your kids. Tell them to be aware of their surroundings, be tolerant of those children they play with, learn next to and see walking by. No matter the age, or, if they have allergies themselves. I am giving you a teachable moment here. Instead of complaining that your child is in a nut free room, embrace it and teach your child about it. Everyone needs to learn how to live in a world that has allergies, of all types. I only talked about the food allergies I know about, but there are other types; It’s like learning CPR. It might not be a tool you use often, but it’s a bonus you know it cause you can save someone’s life!

What to do if someone is experiencing a food allergy?
First. Remain calm. The person experiencing the allergy will most likely be feeling a doom like feeling in their state. We don’t want to aggravate their outlook.

Make sure they are experiencing an allergy. Ask the person, or if you physically see, they have any of the following symptoms: abdominal pain, difficulty swallowing, itching of the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, or any other area, light-headed, nasal congestion, nausea, runny nose, swelling, especially of the eyelids, face, lips, and tongue, shortness of breath, vomiting, itchy lips, tongue, and throat, and sometimes swollen lips.

If you know they have food allergies, ask if they have any antihistamines or an Epi-Pen.

Give dose of antihistamine immediately.

Then, if you drive, rush the person to the hospital. Or call 911.

If symptoms don’t lessen from the antihistamine within minutes, but get worse before EMTs show up or if you live a distance from a hospital, follow instructions on the Epi-Pen, and administer injection. If EMTs arrive after an Epi-Pen was given, notify them immediately.

*****No matter what, the person should be brought to the hospital. An Epi-Pen is not the cure all to allergies. Basically it saves time to get to the ER. *****

—————–

How We Found Out:
Like most people who find out they have allergies, or someone in their life does, it happens by chance. Lucky us, huh?

September 2007, I was fresh out of the hospital having our youngest daughter. My parents were over the house helping my husband with moving some furniture around. As they were wrapping it up to go home, my husband was also scurrying to get out the door for an overnight job on time. My mother, seeing that it would be my first night alone with both children, decided to hang out a little bit to make sure I could handle it. During the discussion of persuading them that I would be fine to be alone, our oldest daughter, freshly 2 years old, was harassing me for a cookie from the cabinet. That begging while holding onto your leg type of harassment. She had already had enough sweets for that day with my parents there, and I felt that she should have something else. I grabbed a granola bar from the cabinet. Convinced her it was better for her than the cookie. She complied. I unwrapped it. Handed it to her, and she started running for the living room. Within four steps of me, she ran back. With a raspy voice saying, “No, thank you.”, then I saw the bar slide along the floor to my feet. It was a Nature’s Valley Sweet and Salty Crunchy Bar. First thing that came to mind was it has nuts.. a food allergy. SHIT! I grabbed her, called for my husband, and immediately sat her on the kitchen table and started on our survey of symptoms. Asking her, ‘How do you feel? Are you itchy?’..etc. We called our pediatrician, who instructed us to give her Benadryl, or anything similar. Which we always have on hand cause of my husband. They then instructed us that if she had other symptoms within an hour to bring her to the ER. Within 15 minutes of the call, my daughter seemed ok, her voice was still raspy, but she sounded a touch better, and no other signs were popping up. Unfortunately, my husband had to go to work. But, I swear as soon as he left the driveway, her ears started to swell to the size of hockey pucks, and small hives started on her cheeks and chest. Her face was flush and her lips started to swell. Her voice got worse. She complained she was itchy in her mouth and I could hear wheezy breathing. So, I snapped up my mom and children in the car to rush to the ER, leaving my dad to go home. My daughter threw up all over herself twice along the car ride to the hospital. Which is to be expected, hearing my husband suffer behind a closed-door a few times, but my mom wasn’t expecting that (hah). So, aside from pulling over twice to make sure she was OK, we got to the ER in record timing… covered in puke. Then as soon as we arrived, she started developing large welts all over her little body and her breathing was stressed. The welts were the size of walnuts on her little body. Ugh.

They administered adrenaline and a steroid. It was just such a blur of action around her. Doctors. Nurses. Lots of words. Tears from me and my mom. Volunteers gifting her books and a new PJ. Calling my sister instructing her to bring a change of clothes and more stuff for my diaper bag for the baby. I wasn’t prepped to be somewhere for hours with a newborn. Leaving messages for my husband on his cell. Everything happened so quickly. Her symptoms subsided a few hours later, where they asked for her to stay overnight for observations. She was an amazing patient, and her high spirits and smiles made it easier to go through all of this. A hospital crib is the saddest contraption ever, so you know. But she was well taken care of.

It was the most petrifying time in my life. Hers, too, she just doesn’t know it. She was suffering and I could only rush her to the ER. I was helpless. My baby girl. The thought of this afternoon brings me so much sadness. Replaying it in my mind just now made me think of how helpless a feeling it is to see someone suffer with a reaction.

A side note: She was already introduced to nuts, when I gave her that bar, but that was the day her body couldn’t tolerate them any longer. She came back allergic to 11 different items, 8 food related. There is not a day that has passed since, that I am not grateful that her allergy reaction happened the way it did. With me and at home. About 3 months after her reaction, we had to go to Sicily for my sister’s wedding. Now, Sicily is the mecca for one of the nuts she came back highly allergic to… the pistachio. They put pistachio into everything..pasta sauces, desserts, hand creams, you name it. So. If we didn’t know about her allergy, we might have found out the HARDEST way in another country. In a way, it was a good thing it happened where and when it did.

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