Gov. Tony Knowles has proclaimed this week as Food Allergy Awareness Week to encourage Alaskans to learn more about food allergies and to help prevent the fatalities that can result from allergic reactions.
You may wonder why you need to be aware of this, especially if you or no one you know has experienced an allergic reation. The majority of the 6 million to 7 million Americans who suffer from severe food allergies are children, and physicians report that the number of people affected is increasing. As the parent of a severely food-allergic child, I want you to be aware.
My child plays in your neighborhood, attends school with your children and eats at your restaurant. The greatest incidence of allergic reactions occurs when eating out in restaurants or while at school, and most of the time these reactions result from ingesting a food that contained a hidden ingredient, eating a cross-contaminated food or eating a food that was thought to be safe. The foods that account for 90 percent of allergic reactions include peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy and wheat. For this reason, I am continually reading ingredient lists and asking specific questions about ingredients. To a busy cook in a restaurant this can be mildly annoying, but to me it is a matter of life and death.
Birthday parties can be a nightmare. On the surface what appears to be a happy, carefree event for the celebrant and guests represents a minefield of hazards to avoid including candy, cookies, cake and ice cream.
When my son Anders attends a birthday party, my husband or I always accompany him. We appear to be the stereotypical over-protective parents. Prior to going to the party, I bombard the parents with a host of questions including ingredient lists of every food item to be served at the party and what activities are planned.
Anders has multiple allergies; some of the foods that he is allergic to cause mild symptoms such as hives or a runny nose. The extreme end of the spectrum for him is a peanut allergy which causes anaphylaxis, a severe reaction that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, a drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and, if untreated, death.
We discovered that Anders was allergic to peanuts when as an infant a tiny amount of peanut butter on his hand cause his skin to swell and become angry red. When he was in daycare as a toddler, he had his own snack of crackers and cheese when the other children were eating peanut butter.
The most horrifying moment for my husband and me occurred one day when we walked into the daycare center to pick up our children and we saw Anders reach over and pick up his playmate's peanut butter cracker and pop it in his mouth. Immediately his throat swelled closed and the airway filled with thick mucus. He was suffocating, and we were helpless. Fortunately, he was able to vomit and clear his airway and breathe on his own. Successive reactions can become increasingly severe.
Avoiding allergens and being prepared for an emergency are the best methods for coping with severe allergies. There is no cure for a peanut allergy. We carry an emergency bag with Anders' medication at all times. This includes an Epi-Pen that injects life-saving Epinephrine should anaphylaxis occur.
The schools in Kenai have been partners in protecting Anders against accidental contact, and it is a partnership that is continually evolving and improving. Anders' picture is posted along with a list of allergens (foods and environmental substances) that he reacts to and the symptoms of a reaction.
The staff has been trained in administering his Epi-Pen. His teacher calls when special occassion snacks are going to be served so that I can check ingredients or bring a substitute. Activities are altered when appropriate. Anders used cream cheese in making a bird feeder while his classmates used peanut butter. He has worn latex gloves when doing manipulative math activities with M&Ms.
Having a child with food allergies is scary; but being prepared by practicing avoidance, reading labels, recognizing the symptoms of an allergic reaction and knowing what to do in an emergency can normalize life. It is much easier to accomplish this when we as parents, healthcare providers, school personnel, restaurant employees, friends and community members work together.
Chances are you will have an occasion to interact with a severly food-allergic person. Be aware that for some children, the candy that you offer them is a life-threatening hazard.
Deb Nyquist, who lives in Kenai, is the mother of three children, two of whom have allergies. People interested in learning how to cope with multiple allegies are invited to give her a call at 283-1683. Information also is available via the Internet at www.foodallergy.com.
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