A Scary Reality
Having a child with a food allergy exacts a huge emotional toll. "You think about your life in two parts," says Maria L. Acebal, the CEO of FAAN, whose 10-year-old daughter has a severe peanut allergy. "There's the time before you got the diagnosis, and the time after you found out that a crumb of a peanut-butter cookie could kill your child. That discovery changes everything: birthday parties, school trips, grocery shopping, and holidays with your family." Parents struggle to raise their children with some semblance of normalcy -- without driving themselves, their kids, schools, and other parents crazy.
"Each day you cross your fingers and pray nothing happens," says Nicole Lenner, a mother of four in Short Hills, New Jersey, whose son Isaac, 9, has multiple life-threatening allergies. "Those first few months were a nightmare. I was petrified and in denial. I didn't think I was up to the task of monitoring every morsel of food that came near my child." Today, she's a veteran who's made it her mission to educate family, friends, and teachers: "Most of us know very little about food allergies -- until we have to."
Kids have an allergic response when their immune system overreacts to foods that are usually harmless. Symptoms often appear within minutes, though it can take as long as two hours. They range from a mild rash, tingling in the mouth, and diarrhea, cramps, and bloating, to anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal reaction in which several systems of the body (lungs, stomach, skin, heart) react simultaneously. "When that happens, you can't wait to see if it gets worse. You use the EpiPen and then rush to the hospital," says Lenner, referring to the device with a dose of the drug epinephrine. Injected through a child's clothing into his thigh, it can stop anaphylaxis. Doctors suggest having two EpiPens to be safe. Isaac wears his on his belt; his teacher and the school nurse each have one too.
While just about any food can trigger an allergic reaction in children who are predisposed to it, roughly 90 percent of reactions are caused by the foods known as The Big 8: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (pecans, almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios), fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. "Food allergies are now occurring earlier in life -- often before 18 months," says Dr. Burks, a member of FAAN's medical advisory board. And as our palate becomes more sophisticated, the list of foods kids are allergic to is growing too. Dr. Burks adds, "Twenty years ago, we didn't see allergies to kiwis and sesame, but now we do."