Parents of kids with food allergies know that it's tough to protect kids from reactions sometimes, even with full knowledge of the allergy. Mistakes happen: labels are mismarked or misread, previously "safe" foods change manufacturing practices, foods unknown to be allergenic are fed to kids. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics shows that this type of accidental ingestion accounts for 87% of allergic reactions. This is reason enough to reinforce a responsible, cautious approach to life-threatening food allergies. But wait, there's more.
This recent study shows another disturbing trend: some caregivers may be giving known food allergens to kids intentionally.
"Non-accidental exposures resulted in 13% of reactions. It's not clear why caregivers would purposely give a child a known allergen, maybe "to see if (the child) has outgrown an allergy, or how allergic he is," says lead author David Fleischer, a pediatric allergist at National Jewish Health in Denver. " -- USA Today
Because an allergic reaction is unpredictable and can lead rapidly to a life-threatening situation, this type of "do it yourself" allergy testing can land you in the ER -- or worse. This is why it's so important to keep in communication with your doctors about new tests or any questions you might have. Please don't try this at home.
I remember hearing a pediatric allergist speak at a recent FAAN conference about "trying out" his son's egg allergy at home -- something he strongly discouraged conference-goers from doing. He fed his allergic son some egg and soon found himself in a life-threatening emergency that he greatly regretted. The moral of this story: it doesn't matter who you are. If you give allergen to an allergic individual, you are risking that person's life and health.
Regarding accidental ingestion, the original Pediatrics study found that, most of the time, it was not parents causing accidental ingestion, but other caregivers.
Why are caregivers making these types of mistakes (besides being human, of course)? I can only guess, but I have a few theories. For one thing, the general public doesn't fully understand the dangers of food allergies. You have to be clear, vocal and willing to advocate for your child.
Please, whatever you do, don't fall into the "I don't want to be that mom (or dad)" trap because it's only going to leave your child more vulnerable in the long run. Repeat after me: "It's OK to tell people how severe my child's allergies are, that they have to be careful and that I have to show them how to do this." Repeat to yourself daily, hourly, whatever you need to do. Telling people about your child's severe medical condition isn't overbearing, it's necessary. Of course, your approach matters. Be calm, matter-of-fact and kind to the person you need to help you and most of the time, you will be effective. Nothing working for you despite your best efforts? Then you have to re-evaluate this person as a caregiver.
Another possible reason why caregivers are exposing kids to allergens? It can be inconvenient to find safe food alternatives or activities and everybody is crunched for time these days. My approach has always been to help educate others and to make it easy for them to help you create the safe environment you need for kids. Partnership is my mantra and it works. In fact, much of my e-book is devoted to coaching you on how to educate and work with others with regard to your child's nut allergy. It is one of the most important things we will do to manage food allergies.
If you ever feel that someone is not taking you seriously, don't leave your child with that person. This is one of the first things that my doctor told me and I still think it's some of the best advice I've ever received. Do what you can to educate your circle, but follow your parental gut instincts. You have them for a reason, right?
Rather than being disheartened by this study, I've found new reasons to believe that a cautious and communicative approach to food allergies works. One new resource for helping others stay on top of allergies/emergency procedures is a new downloadable document created by the doctors at AllergyHome in conjunction with the Kids with Food Allergies Foundation. Here is the link. Thanks to both of these organizations for this resource!
What kinds of problems have you experienced as you try to help others learn about good food allergy management? What solutions have you found?