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ARE YOU ALLERGIC to any-
thing? I don't just mean
flowers that give you sniffles or in-laws that give you hives. I mean foods or bee stings--allergens that could kill you.
Maybe you are and don't even know it. Maybe you ate some clams and then had a runny nose, but never linked the two and thought nothing more of it.
Could be that the next time you eat clams a reaction could be much more serious, or even deadly.
Since our daughter, Megan, was diagnosed with a variety of food allergies before she turned a year old, we've learned a great deal about such conditions. Chief among them:
1. More people than you might think suffer from food allergies.
2. Most people don't understand food allergies, which is at once understandable and extremely frustrating.
It wasn't until I became aware that foods (and other things) can cause severe allergic reactions that I learned the term "anaphylaxis."
If you have a child with a peanut allergy, for example, the word can send chills up your spine.
Anaphylaxis is what can happen when a person accidentally or unknowingly ingests a food or protein to which he or she is allergic. The throat swells and causes the person to suffocate. It's the most serious of a variety of manifestations that can occur.
Thanks to organizations such as the Food Allergy Network, headquartered in Fairfax, food-allergy awareness is improving. To help draw greater attention, May 5-11 has been set aside as Food Allergy Awareness Week.
Awareness is key, especially for child-care providers and school officials. The threat of a reaction lurks everywhere, in every piece of candy, in every cookie, in every cupcake. For children who don't understand that some things have to be off limits, adult awareness is crucial.
I never used to read food-label ingredient lists. Now I do so routinely. Pick any package of processed food and you'll swear you got the Greek version of the ingredient list. What are those things? Is there something hiding in there that Megan shouldn't have? Notice too that certain candies now have a peanut warning on them despite having nothing to do with peanuts. Call it laziness--for failing to clean machinery between batches--and the candy industry's way of covering its own posterior.
All of our relatives and friends--and many restaurant chefs and servers--have been extremely understanding when it comes to food and Megan. Though my wife gets 99 percent of the credit, we have either prepared or carefully scrutinized every morsel that Megan has eaten for the past four years or so. Based on her annual skin tests for allergic reactions, we avoided peanut products, eggs and shellfish during that time; at other times dairy, wheat, soy, oats, rice and other things were forbidden.
Want to taste some of the safe so-called "birthday cakes" I've baked for Megan without wheat flour or eggs? No, you don't.
There have been some restaurant personnel along the way who don't have a clue about food allergies and couldn't care less.
Us: "Our daughter is allergic to peanuts. She can't have anything with peanuts in it."
Them: "How about peanut butter?"
Us: "Do you use peanut oil for your French fries?"
Them: "I don't think so."
Us: "Do you know for sure?"
Them: "I can check, if it's that important."
Us: "Yes, would you please?"
(What we'd like to say: "I hardly think we'd be asking if it wasn't 'that important.' Is life-or-death important?
If she eats peanuts or peanut protein she could have a severe reaction. So, yes, would you please check?")
When you consider all of the childhood medical challenges families may have to face, raising a child with a peanut or other food allergy might not seem so daunting. That's especially true with people who think an allergic reaction consists of a sneeze.
It's a rapidly emerging issue that has tested the medical community. Though doctors have pinned down certain treatments for allergic reactions, and they know that allergies run in families, they'd like to understand better why one person is allergic to peanuts, or wheat, or eggs, or whatever, and another is not.
For now, people who suffer from such allergies or have children with allergies are doing what they can to educate themselves.
For two years in a row now, my wife has risen before sunup on a winter Saturday morning to drive to Baltimore for the Food Allergy Network's annual East Coast conference. At one visit, she entered a room with hundreds of people, sat down, and realized the two people sitting next to her were from the Fredericksburg area.
From Megan's most recent allergy test, we learned that she is apparently outgrowing most of her allergies, something we had been told might happen but hadn't counted on. Even her reaction to peanut products has weakened--to the point that her doctor has recommended a "peanut challenge." She'll be given peanut of some sort at certain intervals and watched in case she reacts. It is done at a hospital, in the event she does.
If she doesn't react, I doubt we'll routinely offer her a pb&j for lunch.
But we'll feel somewhat relieved as she enters kindergarten next fall. If she
does react, the school will quickly be informed of the situation.
Either way, we'll always understand the threat food allergies pose. And, yes, we'll know it's that important.