Abby Reiswitz of Peshtigo, Wis., age 13.
Rachel Cole of Rome, Ga., age 18.
Simon Katz of Littleton, Colo., age 16.
Morgan Crutchfield of Staley, N.C., age 17.
These are just a few of the children who have passed away in recent months at the hands of their food allergies.
What are dietary staples for most people—eggs, milk, nuts and peanut butter, for example—have taken the lives of children, with the majority of them succumbing to a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, in their teen years. In fact, non-profit organization Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) reports "teenagers and young adults" to be at "the highest risk of fatal food-induced anaphylaxis." This leaves many parents hoping their child is one of the fortunate to outgrow his or her food allergy, especially before gaining the freedom that comes with getting a driver's license or leaving the nest.
I was one of those moms who felt certain my 3-year-old daughter, Kendall, would be the one in five kids to outgrow the peanut allergy. However, a few months ago, her blood test revealed otherwise; its downward trend jumped from "moderate" to "very high." My growing belief for my daughter was quickly shattered when the allergist's nurse, who called to report the news, proclaimed, "This tells us she's unlikely to outgrow her allergy." For the first time since receiving her nerve-racking diagnosis more than two years ago, I cried.
I wept for my daughter's future and all the uncertainties that come with food allergies. Will the teacher remember every day to keep her away from kids eating peanut butter? Will Kendall remember every time to ask what's in a food before accepting it? Will she thrive in spite of a life of constant "no's" from me, combined with negative commentary from others who just don't understand? These endless questions left me resigned to a lifetime of worry, but they also formed in me a stronger commitment than ever to keeping her safe.
If you're a parent to a child with food allergies, you understand the constant concern and know the tremendous daily effort to ensure his or her health. To assist all of us, here are four ways to deal with the anguish and help protect our children in the face of a likely lifelong aversion:
1. Be prepared
Risk of fatal anaphylaxis is lowered with the quick use of epinephrine. That's why it's so important to always have epinephrine with your child and to make sure someone with him or her knows how to administer it and when. The action plan provided by your allergist should provide details on the latter and also should be near your child at all times.
Other less critical steps can be taken to be prepared and care for your child's well-being. For example, if food is allowed within the classroom for birthdays or other celebrations, minimize danger by making sure he or she has access to an allergy-friendly treat. Keep one stored with your child's belongings or with the teacher for such situations. For example, I keep a safe candy in the front pouch of my daughter's lunch bag, and her teachers know it's there. Everyone loves that she's not left out, and I get peace of mind for her health!
2. Find support
When allergists don't have all the answers you need to help ease your mind, make an effort to connect with other moms and dads who share the same concerns. You may need to vent about someone who just doesn't get it, or you may be looking for advice on an allergy-friendly place to eat or a new allergist. Support groups enable you to get this information—and with little effort—since many manage Facebook pages where members can easily talk.
FARE's website provides an extensive directory by state for general food allergy support as well as groups dedicated to specific allergens, like No Nuts Moms Group for peanut and/or tree nut allergies.
3. Reinforce safety
First, talk to your children about their food allergies, especially on the way to school, birthday parties and friends' houses. Get them involved in checking labels and asking restaurant wait staff and others what's in a dish. This builds a solid foundation for their personal safety as they grow older and more susceptible to danger.
Second, remind others, including family members, teachers and babysitters, about the risk and the emergency plan of action, and do it often. Printouts are available at no cost from such organizations as AllerMates to help you reinforce the message when you're not there to do it yourself.
4. Keep up on research
Clinical trials for such treatments as oral immunotherapy (OIT) are being conducted at certified allergist offices throughout the country. Additionally, other treatments are under development and include Viaskin® from DBV Technologies, which are patches designed to target the egg, milk and peanut allergies.
Alhough it may be a while before the general population gets access to these treatments, if successful, knowing they are possibilities can give us hope that our children, too, may one day live a food allergy-free life.