Guest Post: Does Your Child Have This Allergy?

“The. Sign. Says. No. Food,” a middle aged woman said through clenched teeth to my friend Pam and me. Pam and I looked at each other, slightly amused. We were with our kids in Northhampton, at the water park inside Look Park. The sign did say no food but our preschoolers were about to have blood sugar crashes and, besides, no one ever paid attention to the sign.

“My nephew has a peanut allergy,” the woman continued. “If someone eats a peanut butter sandwich near him, he could go into anaphylactic shock.”

An allergy to peanuts is no laughing matter.

This year in my son’s first grade class the teacher has noticed a record number of children have allergies. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and food in general have been rising among children. According to the CDC, food allergies affect over ten million Americans. As much as eight percent of America’s children under three have food allergies. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology states that the peanut allergy, in particular, is the most common cause of food-related death.

One child with a severe allergy to peanuts is my friend Vera Marie Badertscher’s grandson. When she isn’t reading books to her grandchildren, Vera Marie Badertscher blogs at Tahoma Blog, where she and her co-author, Charnell Havens, talk about their book, Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist (forthcoming April 2011). Vera Marie also writes about her two passions—reading and travel—at A Traveler’s Library. Vera Marie Badertscher graciously volunteered to do a guest post about a new book that can help children better understand food allergies.

Children’s Book, The Pesky Peanut, Talks about Food Allergies

Guest Post by Vera Marie Badertscher

“You guys got any candy?” My three-year-old grandson burst into the house. He’s not into the finer points of etiquette, including hugs for grandma.

Just for Andrew, I keep a bowl of chocolate covered raisins.

Andrew can’t eat peanuts.

It’s a heavy burden for a three-year-old, who is still a budding conversationalist, to have to say, “I can’t eat that. I’m ‘lergic.” But at his young age, Andrew already knows that eating a peanut might mean getting red bumps all over his body, and feeling really sick, and sometimes even going to the hospital.

I can’t imagine childhood without peanut butter and jelly. But food allergies and intolerances have become so widespread that we of the peanut-butter-and-jelly generations have to learn new ways of coping.

Vera Marie Badertscher reading The Pesky Peanut to her grandson Andrew

Vera Marie Badertscher reading The Pesky Peanut to her grandson Andrew

Katie Corl, the mother of a young boy allergic to peanuts has written a children’s book, The Pesky Peanut: A True Story, to help parents, school personnel, allergic kids, and their friends understand how to cope. Corl’s son first showed signs of a food allergy when he did what all one-year-olds do. He smeared his first birthday cake all over his face. But in his case, the funny sight became serious. His hands and face swelled and turned red.

Here’s an excerpt from early in The Pesky Peanut:

“When they arrived at the hospital, Kelly was taken to a room with bright lights and lots of people in white coats looking at him. After hours of testing, the doctors determined that Kelly was allergic to peanuts. The doctors informed Kelly’s Mom and Dad about the peanut allergy and asked them if Kelly had eaten any peanuts.”

The book avoids blaming anyone for the problems that beset allergic children. Instead it gives explanations of causes, symptoms and ways to cope.

“‘I … I … I don’t know,’ said Mom. ‘This has never happened before and I have never given a peanut to Kelly. All he ate today was his birthday cake.’ The doctors explained that even though the cake may not have been made with peanuts, it may have had traces of peanuts in it or could have been made in a bakery that used equipment that manufactures peanut products.”

book cover

I particularly liked the reassurance that the book gives parents and kids, and the practical suggestions that are built in, like when Kelly gets a little older, his mom takes him to the grocery store and he learns how to read labels.

This passage explains Epi-pens (the injector for anti-allergen drugs):

“’You’re going to be just fine, Kelly,’ the doctors said with a smile.

The doctors gave Kelly an Epi-pen, which was special medicine that Kelly would need to use if he ever came in contact with peanuts. The doctors showed Kelly how to use the medicine with a teddy bear that they gave him. It looked like a fat pencil and would stop the swelling if he ate or touched a peanut.”

A web site called Allergic Child, helps parents cope with the challenge of severe food allergies. On that site, I learned that it is not my imagination that the problem has increased seemingly out of nowhere.

“From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increase 18% among children under age 18. Researchers aren’t currently certain why the prevalence has increased.”

It turns out that children are much more prone to problems if one of their parents has allergies. My son Mike, Andrew’s father, has been plagued with allergies all his life (inherited from me), although he escaped food-related allergies. His teen daughter from his first marriage, Amber, discovered when she was about six and bit into a pistachio that she could not eat tree nuts. (In her case, peanuts, which are legumes, are actually okay.)

Amber has a friend who can’t touch anything that has touched a nut. Amber’s allergy is relatively mild: although she can’t eat walnuts or almonds or other tree nuts, she can eat things prepared with nut oil.

Some researchers believe that children tend to grow out of their allergies, but finding out whether they have or not can be so complex that, as in Amber’s case, they just decide to continue avoidance–the best treatment, since there is no known cure. Because this problem has arisen so suddenly, research is scant and contradictory.

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation has a short, informative guide to peanut allergies on the Internet, and they state that unlike with other food allergies, 80% of children with peanut allergies will continue to face problems in adulthood.

Andrew grabs The Pesky Peanut from me when we’re through reading. He asks to take it home so he can look at it again. Always a good sign from the youngest book critic in the family.

Does your child have a food allergy? What do you think is causing the rise in food allergies among America’s children? (Some researchers believe that the increase in allergies may be because of the “too clean” lives our children lead with our avoidance of dirt and use of anti-bacterial agents. Others have argued that the build up of environmental toxins, like BPA used in plastics and to line aluminum cans, are overloading our children’s fragile systems. Another theory put forth by immunologists like Heather Zwickey is that the current childhood vaccine schedule, beginning with a vaccination for hepatitis B at birth, has contributed to the rise in allergies by overstimulating an infant’s immune system. Exclusive nursing for the first six months or longer, and extended breastfeeding, have been found to decrease the likelihood of allergies.)

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