According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, approximately 12 million Americans have food allergies. A food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to an allergen or food. A food intolerance does not involve the immune system nor is it life threatening like a food allergy. Common symptoms of a food intolerance are bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. The signs of a food allergy are hives, increased mucus drainage in the form of a runny nose or cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, swollen lips, face or tongue, trouble breathing or anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis may include several of the above symptoms as well as a drop in blood pressure or loss of consciousness.
I had never heard of anyone with a food allergy until I was in my 20s. A co-worker had an allergy to peanuts. I never thought much of it at the time; it seemed a strange ailment to me. I couldn’t imagine not eating boiled peanuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, pistachios and every nut you can name.
That all changed with my second child. He was a few days shy of turning one and I was giving him a new snack; a snack that I had given his brother at about the same age－peanut butter Ritz Bits. He ate about 10 crackers and seemed agitated. I thought he was just ready to get out of the high chair, so we went outside to play. He seemed to have red splotches on his body and was scratching at his legs. I looked him over and even his diaper area was covered in red, raised hives. I immediately packed up my three year old and baby and headed to the doctor’s office. There he was given medication and watched for awhile before we were released and told to carefully watch him at home for any further signs of a reaction.
So, imagine how hard it is to keep your toddler from eating what he shouldn’t (birthday parties were the hardest). In addition to not being able to eat peanuts/nuts, he also could not eat anything that had been processed in a facility that also processed nuts because of the possibility of cross-contamination.
Over the years we’ve been to the ER twice with this life-threatening allergy. Each exposure seemed worse than the last. At a birthday party when he was 2, he had one Reese’s Pieces and immediately had a reaction.
When he was three, he had the worst reaction ever. We were traveling to North Carolina around the holidays and I brought snacks with us including carrot muffins from Publix not realizing they had walnuts. Fortunately, I didn’t let the boys eat them on the drive there. But the next morning, I gave him one for breakfast. He already had a cold with some of the symptoms that show at the beginning of a reaction. He ate a few bites and said his throat hurt－I thought due to his cold. Three hours later as my husband and I were shopping in Walmart, we were paged to customer service. We reached the front of the store to find my brother (who’d been waiting in the car with the boys), my three year old and six year old crying and when my three year old son turned around, his body was beet red with hives and his face so swollen that one eyelid was flipping upward. We had to use the Epi-pen (epinephrine which slows the allergic reaction) and take an ambulance to the ER. These ER visits are at the very least 6 hours of medicating, watching and worrying.
He’s now 11 years old and I finally feel a little more at ease about his allergy because he is so aware and careful about it. He has at times felt very alone and different because of his allergy. He’s now used to it and is not concerned that he’s the only one at the party not eating cake. He’s often curious about the foods we eat that he can’t. “Is that good?” he asks. Sometimes I say, “Not really.”