May 11th kicked off Food Allergy Awareness Week. These days, food allergy awareness is near and dear to my heart. Here’s why…
It was the first real snow day of 2014… Wednesday, January 29, exactly two months before my daughter turned 2. She had a few bites of a Cashew Cookie Larabar she had found in the diaper bag. Within 20 minutes, her left eye was red and swollen. It looked as if she had been in a nasty brawl. With a pit in my stomach, I thought… “Cashew allergy?! No, can’t be… she eats and loves walnuts, almonds and pecans.”
About 10 minutes later when my husband (dressed in his work clothes, of course) was holding our daughter, she vomited… spewing the eggs she had just picked at over breakfast. Before I could bathe her, she threw up again. While on the phone with her doctor, I noticed a few, sporadic red blotches… one on her chin, a couple on her chest, a couple on her belly. Confirming my suspicions, her doctor told me to get her in the car and drive immediately to the ER.
By the time we arrived at the hospital, my daughter’s swollen eye and few hives had gone away. She was fine, and hungry. The ER doctor gave her Benadryl and–based on her chowing down of graham crackers, high energy and lack of reaction to other nuts–declared that she had caught a “virus mimicking food allergy symptoms.” But like her regular pediatrician, I knew better.
A month later, an allergist confirmed that my daughter was allergic to cashews. Not to peanuts or any of the other 6 tree nuts they tested, just cashews. For this nut-loving RD who cooked with nuts, regularly snacked on nuts and dreamed of packing fun trail mixes for her kids, I was shocked. Lost. And, most of all, scared. I knew people whose kids had food allergies. And as a RD, I had–of course–worked with people who had food allergies. But, it had never personally affected me. I helped clients create food plans void of their allergenic food(s), and–at the end of the day–I went home and enjoyed my peanuts, cheese, eggs and cashews.
That luxury, I realized, was gone.
In its place was tremendous fear and great loss… fear for my daughter–who now had to carry two Epi Jr. pens everywhere she went–that she would unknowingly eat cashews in a restaurant meal and loss that she might be the one kid at a birthday party who can’t enjoy the cake.
Don’t get me wrong. She is healthy, sweet and loves to eat. And, I am well aware that we are incredibly fortunate to have two beautiful, healthy children. One of them just requires that we scrutinize every ingredients list and keep her safe, as best as we can, until it is her time to scrutinize food labels and ask every server, teacher, flight attendant and host or hostess if that food contains tree nuts. (Because of the likelihood of cross-contamination during the roasting and processing of tree nuts, doctors advise patients with one tree nut allergy to avoid all tree nuts.)
Food allergies are often misunderstood and the term “food allergy” is certainly overused. I hear this from clients all the time…
Me: “Why do you avoid [insert pretty much anything here… gluten, sugar, wheat, cheese, etc.]?”
Client: “Because I have an allergy to [yup, you got it, bread and pasta, added sugars, etc.]”
Me: “Were you diagnosed by an allergist or other doctor?”
Client: “No. I just feel better when I don’t eat bread [or candy or pasta or cheese], so I must be allergic.”
What is a food allergy?
If you suspect you or your child have a food allergy, see a board-certified allergist for a true diagnosis. Here are some basic facts about food allergies.
- Food allergy is a serious medical condition, which causes the immune system to mistakenly attack a protein found in foods.
- Food allergy affects about 15 million people in the U.S., 1 in 13 of those are children.
- Unlike food intolerances (which are also serious, but not life-threatening), food allergies are “IgE mediated.” When someone with a food allergy eats an allergenic food, their immune system produces large amounts of the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE antibodies then attack the allergen(s) by releasing histamine and other chemicals, triggering food allergy symptoms.
- Eight foods (peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish) are responsible for most (90 percent) of all food allergy reactions in the US.
- Food allergy reactions range from itchy mouth and hives to anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially fatal reaction. Anaphylaxis is most likely to occur as a reaction to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. People with asthma and a food allergy are at greatest risk for an anaphylatic reaction.
- Some children may outgrow food allergies to milk, soy and egg. Peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish allergies tend to be lifelong.
- Food allergies can develop at any age.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for food allergies. The safest way to manage food allergies is to completely avoid all food allergens.
For more information on food allergies, check out these credible organizations.
- Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), www.foodallergy.org
- Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network for Kids (FaanKids), www.fankids.org
PLEASE SHARE: Do you have children with food allergies? What resources do you use for managing their food allergies? Please share. I’d love to hear from you!