To many of us, an allergic reaction may seem like a simple thing: some sneezing or itching, then pop in a Benadryl or a Zyrtec and it’s over. But to the growing number of allergic children in the United States and elsewhere, allergies aren’t so simple. They rarely kill, but they can make the sufferer miserable and sometimes result in a trip to the emergency room.
An allergy occurs when a person’s immune system attacks something generally harmless, like pollen or a type of food. Their exact causes are unknown, but the number of people diagnosed with allergies continues to rise.
Trisha Maled, co-leader of a local support group for parents with children who have allergies, says the increase is noticeable. “Our group continues to grow every single month with a newly diagnosed child,” she said. “They will continue to increase until they find a cure.”
Most children – and their parents – find out about allergies when the children are young. Many have various allergies, the most common being to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
Four local children recently discussed how they live with severe allergies. All of them have to be aware of what they eat and how their food is prepared.
“I have to be really observant, whereas others may not be as observant of what they’re about to eat,” says Kourtney Kinchen, 12, who is allergic to eggs, wheat, milk, nuts and shellfish.
Koby Tavel, 11, also is allergic to multiple foods, including nuts, seafood, legumes and sesame. He described what happened when he had his first bite of fish at 10 months old.
“Five minutes later I was like swelling up and stuff,” he said, grimacing. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Miles McGuire, 12, also had a frightening reaction to nuts and legumes. His father, Reggie, described the scene after his son had his first bite of peanut butter at less than a year old: “I remember I was out working and my wife called me frantically to tell me what happened. … She gave him about a fingertip amount of peanut butter and walked into the other room to get some laundry out of the dryer, and by the time she came back she didn’t recognize him because his eyes were swollen shut.”
These children have since learned ways to deal with their food allergies. Most have become expert at reading ingredient lists and asking questions at restaurants. To be extra safe, they often bring their own food to events.
“Whenever I go to a birthday party, I always have to bring my own cake, ice cream or whatever. And my mom or my dad has to call and see what they’re having, and if they’re having ice cream,” says Ben Leraris, 11, who is allergic to dairy, wheat, eggs, rye, barley, beans and some shellfish. “All my camps I go to, my mom just makes sure the people know how to handle EpiPens.”
“If I go to somebody’s house for a birthday party, or if I’m just at a restaurant with my family, I need to make sure that I read the back of the box or ask the person, ‘What kind of oil do you cook this in?’” added Miles.
Parents, too, have learned to adapt to life with a child with severe allergies. “It’s a little different now than it was at the beginning,” said McGuire, who explained that the biggest adjustment was having to take so much caution in food. “We had to read every single label and it was like going to school, just being educated on what’s available, what he can, what he can’t have.”
“I think the hardest part really is when you’re trying to explain to people who are going to be serving food around them; it’s most painful the closer the person is to the family,” added Aviva Tavel, Koby’s mother. She described one time when her mother, who lives in Bloomington, had eaten some peanuts on her way to Indianapolis. Remembering her grandson’s allergies, she washed her hands before entering the house, then kissed him on the forehead. A few minutes later, Koby’s forehead broke out in hives.
Kourtney’s mother, Tina Harris, described how difficult it was when her child started spending time away from home. “When you’re entering school, those are periods of greater anxiety because it’s not the controlled environment you have at home and you have to go through the process of educating the adults whom she’s going to be with,” she said.
To Ben’s mother, Erin, the greatest challenge is not letting the allergy rule the family’s life. “It’s pushing food to the place where it belongs, which is not first and foremost above everything,” she said. Nevertheless, she was very nervous when faced with sending her son to summer camp for the first time.
Fearful that he would be given the wrong food by accident, she decided to go to camp herself. “I only came out to fix the food. I didn’t talk to him, I didn’t look at him, I in no way made eye contact with him. I was only there to make sure that the food was OK.”
According to the kids and their parents, having to manage their food isn’t always a burden. In fact, there are even some advantages to the necessary scrutiny of what enters their bodies. “One of the bonuses has been a healthier diet in the sense of Kourtney does not eat any processed food,” said her mother. “She has a much healthier and a richer diet, I think, than a lot of her friends.”
There are other advantages, too – for example, not having to wait in long lunch lines because they bring their own lunches to school. “Sometimes I get like something better than all the other kids get ’cause no school food is that good,” Koby said.
The parents agree that after the initial shock, the allergies become easier to deal with. “For us it’s just been part of our lifestyle, so it’s not really seen as coping, it’s just what we do,” says McGuire.
“I used to think it was horrible, what we were going through,” added Tavel. “Then Koby and I came out of the allergist’s office down at Riley and we were next to a mother with a child who had been through multiple heart surgeries.”
Assistant editor Priya Mirmira, 14, and reporter Ellen Flood, 13, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press