Friday, October 18, 2013

Dealing With Food Allergies

It has taken me a month and half to decide how to approach this subject. It's one that is a very personal topic for our family. I'm still not sure I'll be going about it the right way, when what I really want to scream at people is "educate yourself" and "read the [bleep] label!!" However with both boys in school I have different perspectives on this matter than what I did just a month ago. I was watching a news report on food allergies today and was reminded that in order to educate people, one must spread the word. So that is what I am attempting to do: spread the word on food allergies, especially to those who are not affected by food allergies.

My journey with food allergies began when my oldest son was an infant, when I didn't even know he was allergic to nuts. Looking back, I should have had a clue, but we didn't find out for sure until he was almost 19 months old. Breastfeeding an infant makes one hungry, like monstrous hungry. I opted for peanut butter sandwiches daily. Max was fussy and irritable with horrible eczema. The fussiness and irritability got better once he was older and I didn't think much of it until he was 9 months old and I touched him after I had a handful of peanuts. Full body hives appeared within seconds. When mentioned to the pediatrician, I was told it wasn't much of a concern and to definitely wait until he was two to introduce peanut products. Over the next year, there were many of these incidents. Mainly after coming into contact with other people who had eaten peanuts. After the first incident when he was 9 months old, I made our household peanut free because deep down I knew there was a problem.

I'll never forgot the night I knew for sure that I was right. That I should have been more forceful (yet somehow, whenever I'm forceful with anyone I'm automatically deemed a crazy bitch), that I knew I would no longer listen to anyone who had anything to say about my child. We were having a great family day, decorating sugar cookies, listening to Christmas music, and getting ready to go looking at Christmas lights. Max was off playing and someone gave him a piece of chocolate. Instantly he spit it out and started vomiting profusely. His lips slightly swelled and he got hives all over his face. He never even swallowed the bite of chocolate! Now, at five years old, he is able to tell me how he felt that night "I was scared. It hurt me really bad." Yes, he was 19 months old and STILL remembers that event. And he never even swallowed any. This was all from being in his mouth for maybe two seconds.

I know if he had swallowed it he could have died. We didn't have an Epi-pen (short for epinephrine, the medicine that's in the container, pen because it's a long needle one must jam into the leg for 10 long seconds) and even after several doses of Benadryl, he had hives the rest of the night. That is still one of the scariest moments of my life (the other also courtesy of Max and a sudden spike to 105 degree fever. So parents, no matter who the hell tells you fevers are just the body's way of fighting off infection, fevers are NOT to be messed with either) and I hope to never have to experience that again. After being tested, it was confirmed Max has an allergy to peanuts. This past August, Max visited a new allergist who did full allergy testing. On a scale of zero to five, Max is at a one and is still extremely sensitive to peanuts. If he is around anyone who has eaten peanuts, peanut butter, or any kind of chocolate with peanuts in it, he instantly breaks out in hives. He doesn't even have to be touched by the person, just near them. I can only imagine being a parent to a kid with an allergy at a five. I would be terrified to even leave the house with them!

Max's peanut allergy has not been anything I've been extremely worried about until this school year. Preschool was completely nut free so I had nothing to worry about (if his teacher's were worried about treats a student brought for birthday's they had Oreos on hand for him). Max's grade school is "peanut free" but it wasn't until meet the teacher night that I found out what that means. The schools themselves don't serve any kind of nuts in their breakfasts or lunches, but any kids can bring peanut products into the school. Holy hell, I almost had a panic attack. We've been extremely lucky to have an amazing school nurse who has had training with food allergies specifically and checks everyday if any students have peanuts in their lunches. The school takes precautions: Max is only allowed to take hot lunch so he only sits at hot lunch tables (yes, they separate hot and cold lunches for this reason). I still worry that children will come to school with peanut butter on their hands from breakfast or a child won't wash their hands well after lunch, or someone will bring birthday treats with nuts in it, but so far there has been no issue.

I have heard from many parents whose child(ren) have food allergies and they have not been so lucky this school year. I think a lot about how all teachers or anyone who works in a school should have to take a course on food allergies (or just allergies in general). I wish day cares, schools, gyms, programs, etc. would be fully knowledgeable on allergies and how to deal with them properly. Food allergies are tricky because you MUST read food labels, something most people are not great about doing.  I know teachers, daycare providers, and assistants must go through some training on how to use an Epi-pen, but what about teaching these people who are in contact with these kids everyday what to do before using an epi-pen is necessary?

Here is some pretty important food allergy knowledge that I wish everyone would know. Most of it seems like "um, duh!" to me, but I am no longer surprised at the lack of knowledge a lot of people have about food allergies:

  • Before bringing snacks, serving birthday cake, treats, etc. PLEASE make sure no kids have food allergies. As good as a lot of kids are with their food allergies, keep in mind you're the adult and it is your responsibility to keep them safe.
  •  Cross contamination is a huge issue. We have to be incredibly careful and in most cases, can't buy anything from bakeries. I love how one big grocery store chain in this area will make a cake that is completely "peanut free" only to find out they have their peanut toppings in an open container next to all of the other ingredients. Donuts are a big no-no from this grocery chain too because sure they have donuts with no nuts on them, but they're also in the same open glass case as all of the other donuts. Instant hives for Max, which I'm sure means an ER visit for others.
  •  READ FOOD LABELS and read about the food we eat in general. Please educate yourself about what exactly you are eating. For example: my nephew is allergic to latex and can't have bananas. Why you ask? Because many of the proteins found in latex are also found in bananas and other foods. I was mind blown when I found this out years ago too.
  • Even when a label says "no peanuts" read below the ingredients and on many packaged goods, you'll see the words "made in a factory that contains peanuts" (or whatever other allergy a child may have). This is still a no-no. See cross contamination issues.
  • Peanuts and tree nuts are different. Kids may be allergic to one of both of these. Neither are to be messed with.
  •  Children with food allergies DO NOT  need to only ingest what they're allergic too. Many times just being around it can cause a reaction. 
  •  Do not hesitate to use the Epi-pen!! If you're worried your child or a child you are watching has come into contact or even ingested something they're allergic too, don't wait for symptoms to appear because often times it can be too late. Use the Epi-pen and any other medications immediately. I have seen news articles all too often that involve parents or caregivers waiting for "a reaction or symptoms" only to experience a horrible outcome. Do not wait, do not hesitate, just do it as it could save a person's life.
I know I am forgetting many other things I would like parents to know about food allergies. As common as a lot of food allergies are these days, I am constantly reminded that when someone doesn't have to deal with them on a daily basis, it's often not thought of. Our middle child Harrison is now in preschool and while he doesn't have food allergies, there are kids in his class who do. That means this week's snacks have had to be closely monitored, thought out, and many boxes read. When you're not used to doing that, I know it can be tough and means added time in the aisles of the grocery store. Yet, imagine having a nut allergy and walking through the malls at Christmas time when there's always some kind of shop roasting nuts and handing them out. You're walking by and instantly feel pain and itchy (this is how Max describes it to me). Just by simply walking near something that contains nuts. Chances are you don't even think twice about it......until you're affected by it.

I'm not saying that they should stop serving nuts everywhere or ban them for Christ sake. I'm saying be aware. Educate yourself, especially if you're a parent. At some point you're likely to come across a child in the class who has an allergy to something. For some reason, food allergies are rising and the first step is to be aware that just because it doesn't affect you, it can really affect how other's live on a daily basis.