by K.M. White
Like many parents, I am concerned about the health and well-being of my children, though I will admit that sometimes my concern makes me a bit too overprotective. And my worry could sometimes be attributed to bringing on my minor panic attacks. But, when one of your children has had a health scare or an unexpected diagnosis, it leaves you in mother bear mode all the time.
Such is the case with my oldest daughter Katherine, who has food and environmental allergies. We discovered this when she was a little over a year old during one of her heart appointments. Katherine was born with two holes in her heart; a patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) and a ventricular septal defect (VSD) and thankfully these closed on their own by the time she was five. But, while being worried about her heart, I also had to worry about an entirely different health issue.
I can recall the doctor nonchalantly handling me an EpiPen and a few inhalers and prescriptions to have filled. I was told to keep these items with me or her at all times. This meant creating allergy kits that were left at daycare, with my parents, one at home and one we carry with us at all times. I had to make sure that anyone who watched Katherine knew how to use an EpiPen. They also could not feed her anything but what I had packed for her, unless I had read the ingredient list and knew it didn’t contain peanuts, tree nuts, soy, or eggs.
I lived with a fear that she would accidentally eat something that would leave her struggling to breathe and possibly kill her. I did not trust anyone to watch her. I lived in bigger fear of being in this situation and being the one responsible for saving her life. I also worried that Katherine would never have a normal life because of the constant concern of what she would eat.
I can handle the environmental allergies a lot better than the food. Typically I give her some Benadryl and her inhaler if she starts wheezing. Sometimes, this exasperates her asthma (that is allergy related) and she gets another inhaler or the nebulizer. I don’t get as panicked in these situations.
Her food allergies terrify me. I can control what is in our home and know that she is safe. We avoid any foods containing what she is allergic to. We do not purchase items with labels that say “made on equipment that makes products containing tree nuts and/or peanuts” or that say “made in a factory where items containing tree nuts and/or peanuts are present.” We don’t take the chance, even if it is a small percentage that there would be any allergen in what she ate.
As she has gotten older – she is now eight – she knows to check labels and always ask what is in something. She takes her own snacks with her in case we don’t know what is in something. Unfortunately, not everyone double checks the ingredients on a box or thinks about using almond milk when baking, so they may not think what they made could be harmful to Katherine.
I used to worry about offending people when I asked what they would be serving if we were planning on eating dinner or attending a birthday party. I didn’t want them to feel obligated to change the menu or have something special for Katherine.
Now I just speak up. I try not to bombard another mother with Katherine’s allergy kit and information the day of a playdate; I try to review the situation prior to make sure they are comfortable handling this. I no longer feel embarrassed bringing back-up snacks.
A lot of people do not have experience with food allergies and how severe they can be. There have been times where Katherine has reacted just by coming into contact with peanuts or having someone touch her who just ate nuts. I have to make sure that she is safe.
It is also confusing to tell the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy, especially because the same symptoms can be seen in both cases. A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein and causes an allergic reaction. Whereas the immune system is not involved with a food intolerance. Even though food intolerances are not life-threatening the same way a food allergy can be, they can cause an individual great discomfort.
I think anyone who interacts with children on a regular basis should become familiar with the signs of an allergic reaction as well as how to use an EpiPen. The important thing to always keep in mind is that any food can bring on an anaphylactic reaction, and this can be fatal. In most cases, these symptoms will appear within seconds to a few hours after the child has eaten, touched, and/or inhaled an allergic food.
The common symptoms to watch for in the event of an allergic reaction may include one or more of the following: a tingling sensation in the mouth; swelling of the eyes, lips, face, tongue, throat, or other parts of the body; difficulty breathing; rash or hives; redness and itchiness; vomiting; abdominal cramps; diarrhea; decreased blood pressure; and loss of consciousness.
Treatment for these reactions is epinephrine, which is also known as adrenaline, and comes in the EpiPen. It is a pretty simple device but definitely scares me. We have a tester EpiPen that we practice with and I always have it available in the kit that goes with Katherine. She is at an age where we will need to show her how to do this on herself and I know that will be scary for her; it is scary for me. But I know we need to arm her with that knowledge because I do worry that one day she may find herself alone in an allergy situation.
I am glad that Katherine is now comfortable letting people know about her allergies. For a period of time she didn’t want me to bring it up. She would skip having the snack or birthday treat at a party and wouldn’t eat what I had brought because she didn’t want her friends to notice. Now she just brings out her own snack without a thought and she doesn’t get upset that she can’t have the cookie or piece of cake at a party. She knows that she needs to be cautious.
I know that, as a parent, you don’t want your kid to be treated differently by their peers. Although a food allergy is so outside of their control, kids can still tease about this type of thing…because it makes that child different. I have been to an event with Katherine where I have asked another child if they wouldn’t mind switching seats when they sat down next to her with a snack bag of peanuts. I explained why, and the child just looked at me and then Katherine and kept eating those nuts. I definitely wanted to say something, and I am sure it wasn’t something ice, but I found another seat for Katherine next to some other friends.
But then there are times where some kids really amaze me. One of Katherine’s friends was concerned about the treat they were bringing in to school and whether it would be okay for her to eat, and the mother sent me pictures of the ingredient label. I was touched that the child even thought about it and mentioned it to their mother and that she contacted me.
I know Katherine gets disappointed when I tell her she can’t have something. She tries hard not to show that, but I see it. I know she gets tired of hearing me tell her how serious this could be and that she needs to be extra careful with everything she eats. I know that the 24-hours leading up to a playdate are probably the most annoying for her, because I am constantly testing her on what to do in certain situations while at her friend’s house. I point out the labels to her so she becomes familiar with what to watch for.
It is a big responsibility to care for someone with a food allergy. I am so glad that when we had our youngest daughter tested she came back clear. I admit that I still worry about what Sophie eats though, because I know that allergies can develop over time. I also know that Katherine may outgrow some of hers.
She has her regular allergy checkups and those typically involve a blood test or that dreaded scratch test. I bribe her with a trip to the hospital gift shop to get through these. I always hope they don’t discover she is allergic to something new and that maybe one of the allergy levels has gone down.
I don’t know if I will ever stop worrying about her food allergies. It is a scary thing to deal with. I try not to smother Katherine, but I am sure she will tell you I still do a great job of that. I will probably always ask what the ingredients are, and I will probably even double check to make sure.
And I will probably always wonder how she ended up with food allergies. I read everything I find on how to cope with food allergies and what new studies are being performed. We hope that, one day, Katherine can live without fear of what she eats.