You’re sitting on the plastic chair placed next to the exam table your child is perched on. The doctor has just returned to the room, takes one look at the large red welts that have formed on your child’s back as a result of the allergy skin test she’s administered and confirms what you’ve feared: what you suspected was an allergic reaction to milk or to peanuts or to soy the other day was indeed an allergic reaction. You are now part of a club you didn’t want to belong to, one that reads labels and carries epinephrine and worries over basic everyday life events like birthday parties and going to school. You are now an allergy parent, and a sense of dread and overwhelm is beginning to set in.
First Things First
Yes, a food allergy diagnosis can be scary. This isn’t just about itchy eyes and a runny nose. The doctor has likely just prescribed an auto-injector of epinephrine and told you to keep it with your child at all times in case of a life-threatening reaction – and you likely stopped listening at that point because your brain got tripped up on “life-threatening.” The idea that a childhood staple like a PB&J could be deadly for your child is overwhelming. But before you go too far down the “what if” rabbit hole, take a deep breath and keep reading this article.
You are Not Alone
Food allergies affect nearly 32 million Americans. Breaking that down further, 1 in every 13 children has a food allergy which means when your child enters the classroom, they won’t be alone. There’s an average of 2 children per class with food allergies in the US. You are not alone. Here’s the important takeaway from that: there are families who have walked this path before you. They have wisdom to share. They have success stories. They have tips on how to avoid mistakes they made or challenges they faced. They once sat on that plastic chair next to the exam table and took in the same diagnosis with the same set of worries you’re now dealing with and they figured out how to help their child live in a way that respects their allergies without giving into fear. And, they can help you do the same. Seek out allergy support groups online or in-person. Start looking over resources like FARE, FAACT, and Kids with Food Allergies. These organizations offer community sections where you can connect with other families, as well as a wide range of reliable information from experts.
Know What to Look For
In the spring when the flowers start to bloom and the pollen begins to blow, folks that don’t even think they have allergies recognize the familiar itchy, watery eyes and runny nose that we associate with hay fever. Ask someone to describe an allergic reaction and that’s exactly what many of them will say. Others may recall stories about more severe responses to food or bee stings, and they’ll begin to describe anaphylactic shock. The truth is, both of those descriptions are accurate portrayals of what can be an allergic response, and yet neither of them is complete.
Allergic reactions can include a wide array of symptoms from congestion and a scratchy throat to difficulty breathing and a drop in blood pressure. It can include a rash and/or hives. It can include vomiting. It can include dizziness. Ask your doctor to give you a list of potential symptoms to look out for, as well as an allergy action plan that details how you should respond based on what symptoms you witness. When do you administer the epinephrine? When do you call an ambulance? Should you give an antihistamine? Can soap and water be enough to manage a skin-only exposure? Don’t guess. Talk to your doctor so you are prepared to know what to look for and how to respond.
In the film Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin delivers an impassioned speech which sums up the cardinal rule of sales, “A. B. C. Always be closing.” In the business world there are some that will debate the merits of that and suggest that the real phrase should be “Always be checking.” Now that mantra not only applies to the way you maintain business relationships, but it’s also wise words about how you live with food allergies. Always be checking. Check labels on packaged food when you are in the store. Check labels when you pull the package from the cabinet. Check labels before you consume that food. Check with your wait staff/management/kitchen when you eat out even if it’s the same place you’ve eaten at a hundred times before. Check that you’ve got autoinjectors with you when you leave the house. Check with the other adults assuming responsibility for your child that they know what to look for and how to respond.
Respect Not Fear
This is a big one, so let’s start by repeating it one more time: Focus on developing a healthy respect of food allergies, not fear. There is a very fine line between these two sides of the coin. Fear can paralyze us. It can keep us from living life fully. It can increase anxiety in us and our family. More importantly, it does not keep us any safer than its counterpart respect. Respecting food allergies means you take reasonable precautions. You check labels. You ask questions. You carry your autoinjectors. You don’t eat things you can’t confirm are safe. You bring food with you if you aren’t sure you’ll find something safe to eat. You ask questions. You wash your hands. And you live life to its fullest. You go to parties. You travel. Your child goes to school and joins clubs and does all the things children their age do. You’ve got this!