Friday, August 30, 2013

The food allergies

In our house, Bry and I deal with several food allergies. Not ourselves, our boys. They both have different foods that they can't eat. We're thankful that neither of them have allergies severe enough to require an epi-pen. At least the we know of... We have yet to get the little one in to see an allergist so who knows what we might learn from a visit. our oldest was 21 months old, he had terrible hay-fever; he was so miserable. I took him into see the allergist and they tested for 24 different things. Not just plants, foods and animals too. We learned that he was allergic to eggs and dairy. We had no idea. We're a vegan family. We have been since he was 14 months old so we never fed him those things and thus never saw a reaction. The nurse couldn't have been more shocked at that, "You don't eat eggs? At all?" I'm pretty sure she didn't know what a vegan was.

We don't eat or use anything that comes from an animal, or used to be an animal. Excluding insects.

Finding out what allergies your child has in a doctor's office is not nearly as distressing as finding out by accident. In our house we've dealt with both. Learning that our older son was allergic to eggs and dairy didn't really affect us in any major way - at least not at the time. At home, his allergies don't matter since we never buy either of those foods or any food that contains them as an ingredient. After he turned three, it started to matter quite a bit more because we sent him to preschool a couple afternoons a week.

Dealing with allergies and schools together is never easy. Overall, I found the staff at the preschool to be very open to suggestions and willing to make accommodations. Basically, well-meaning, which is excellent. But our boy came home from school three different times that year with an allergic reaction to a snack that they thought was safe. I tracked it down to popcorn. That was the culprit. A simple and easy snack that feeds a lot of children for a very low cost. Parents will buy a box of microwaveable popcorn and bring one pouch to the school and the whole bag will feed a class of 12. The problem is that it comes in a buttery sauce. Even pre-popped popcorn is almost always either buttery, caramel flavored, or cheesy. I finally told them not to feed him popcorn of any kind just to be safe. The reason it took so long to track down the offending food is because our son's symptoms are all gastrointestinal, meaning they all happen down in the gut causing cramps and diarrhea. The allergic reaction is somewhat delayed because his body digests the food, -then- has the allergic reaction. Most people think of a food allergy as causing an immediate and dramatic reaction. A rash breaks out, or the throat closes up, or the eyes swell shut... Something like that. Believe me when I say they aren't all like that. And, just because they aren't like that, doesn't mean they aren't to be taken seriously. I made a point to supply his 3's preschool teachers with foods that I knew were safe for him that they could use any time they were unsure about the day's snack.

I did the same thing for his 4's teachers and I told them at the start of that school year, "No popcorn!" What I didn't tell them, and probably should have, was, "No fish crackers!" Everyone out there knows Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. They come in other flavors besides cheese, but I have yet to find a variety that doesn't have dairy in it. This means that our son can't eat any kind of fish-shaped cracker. One parent brought pretzel-flavored Goldfish crackers to the class for a snack, but brought them in a zip top bag with no nutritional information attached. The teachers, knowing I had once brought in a (safe!) brand of pretzels thought these pretzel fish were okay for our boy to eat. That happened on a Friday, so it was an...interesting...weekend. I spoke to his teachers the next Monday and they were very apologetic, but really, it wasn't so much their fault as it was the parent who brought crackers that were dumped into a bag. I believe that as a parent bringing snack, there is a responsibility to provide nutritional information.

During that school year, my father-in-law and his wife took a trip to California and while there, shopped at a farmers' market and got lots of goodies that were not in season in Michigan. Among their purchases was a fruit called a Chinese date, also frequently called a jujube (the Wiki page). When Granny offered our boy one to try we said sure, he loves dried fruits like that. A half hour later, he had a terrible itchy rash on his arms and legs. The rash cleared up quickly after we gave him 1 tsp of Benadryl. Learning about a third food allergy in such a way was incredibly disconcerting. One never can tell how bad a reaction will be. I felt extremely relieved that it cleared up so quickly and was fairly mild. Grandpa and Granny felt so bad, but as with the teachers, it wasn't their fault. There was no way to know in advance that the Chinese date would cause an allergic reaction. When I began looking up information about them, I learned that these jujubes are from the buckthorn family of plants (Rhamnaceae) and that as a family they are very widespread throughout North America. It's a fairly large family, but only a few of these actually have any parts suitable for human consumption. Now that I know what I know about our older son's allergies, and I know what I know about the buckthorn plant family, I really wonder if his seasonal allergies are caused by wild-growing varieties. It's a theory, there's no way for me to know for sure, I'm no botanist. Just as an added piece of info, a jujube is different from a regular date because a regular date comes from a tree in the palm family; so botanically it is different.

The start of a new school year is rapidly approaching and our oldest is starting Kindergarten. This is the third year in a row that I've filled out an allergy action plan that's kept in the office with a bottle of Benadryl; better safe than sorry. In that same vein, I always keep a bottle of pediatric pro-biotic supplements on hand in the fridge. Any time our older son has issues in his gut, I give him one tablet a day until he's back to normal.

So what about our younger son? That was a pretty scary discovery actually. When the baby was 9 months old, I fed him kiwi. As it turns out, that was a really bad idea but I didn't know that at the time. That's one of the things that make food allergies so frightening, you just never know until the food is eaten. I had some kiwi with me out on a playdate and as I was feeding it to the baby my friend Tat says, "Kiwi is a high allergy food." Huh? I had no idea... A day later, the little guy has diarrhea and is vomiting nearly non-stop. It took an entire week to get all of the kiwi through his little body because I'd fed it to him seeds and all. I really was worried because a 9 month old can get dehydrated very quickly. I couldn't even give him any medicine (like I do with his brother) because of how little he is. I called the pediatrician's office and explained what was happening and what I believed was the cause. Now, I've always felt like any concerns I've had regarding our sons' health have been taken seriously, and I have been satisfied with the quality of care that my sons have received both before and since that incident. But talking to the nurse that day about my youngest's symptoms, I really felt like I was getting the brush off. I was so shocked. It seemed like the minute I answered her question: "Is he having trouble breathing?" with a "No", she treated me like I was over-reacting to what was probably a cold or flu. I wanted to shake this woman... Lady, you're a nurse, how do you not know that airway issues are not the only sign of an allergic reaction? And even if it wasn't an allergic reaction, isn't the vomiting and diarrhea in 9 month old enough to be concerned about? I kept as calm as I could under the circumstances as I explained that I was pretty sure I knew what I was looking at since I had an older son whose allergy reactions were mostly gastrointestinal. Oh well, those were the magic words I guess. All of a sudden she was willing to believe me; believe that I wasn't some poor, frazzled, stressed-out, first-time mom calling in and making a big deal out of nothing. I knew right then that I was going to have to take the little one to an allergist eventually, they're specialists and they (along with their nursing staff!) take allergies and allergic reactions seriously. When I spoke to the pediatrician at the 9 month visit, I asked him about seeing an allergist right away, but he suggested I wait. Not because he wasn't taking me seriously, he was - he knows my older son and has seen the allergist's reports. He suggested I wait for two reasons: 1) the skin prick tests are a little painful, and 2) a baby still nursing is borrowing his mother's immune system and this would skew any allergy test results. So I'm waiting for a time between 18 and 20 months. Since then, I've avoided kiwi (obviously) and I've also been very careful about introducing, or even re-introducing, other fruits and vegetables. From researching kiwi allergies, I learned there is such a thing as a latex-fruit cross reaction. People allergic to latex are more likely to be allergic to certain foods than those who aren't. People allergic to the cross-reactive foods are more likely to be allergic to latex than those who aren't. This is a big part of why I think allergy testing is necessary, there are too many possibilities and I don't want to discover any more of them by accident.

Having children with food allergies means I've had to find related resources. There are lots and lots out there. We live in an age of food allergies it seems. When I was kid growing up, there was one kid in the whole school allergic to peanuts, and another allergic to bees. That was it. These days, it seems like there are one or two kids per class with food allergies. It's not just peanuts anymore either. I've seen kids allergic to sesame seeds, food dyes, tree nuts, strawberries, and wheat. There are a whole host of others, those are just the ones I've encountered firsthand in the course of teaching.

**Side note: Teaching is what I did before I became the Zumbamommy, and when my youngest is old enough to be in school full time I'll be the Zumbamommy-teacher. I think hyphenating is the way to go, don't you?**

I want to share some of the resources I've found that have quality products or useful information.

Allerbling is a product I bought for our older son. They sell pediatric allergy alert bracelets and have 15 charms available. Unfortunately, none of the charms are for a kiwi allergy so I had to look elsewhere when shopping for our younger son. I found Allermates and they have a huge variety of wristbands and charms, including kiwi. Their customer service is fantastic. I exchanged emails with a live person who was clearly in charge. He was able to work with me as far as payment and shipping since they are based in the UK and charged me £19.49 GBP ($30.34 USD). I've also shopped from, the sell customizable allergy alert stickers as well as bag tags. With our older son starting kindergarten this year, he'll be eating lunch at school. I bought him a bag tag for his lunch bag and stickers for the lunch box and its components.

Useful websites:
Eating with food allergies
Kids with food allergies
Allergy friendly restaurant database

Best advice: As a parent, you have natural instincts, listen to them. If you don't like what some doctors and nurses are saying about your child, get a second opinion, or even a third. Doctors are usually pretty smart people, but they don't know your kid the same way you do.

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