Nothing to Sneeze at: Rethinking Childhood Food Allergies
Over a decade ago, I put myself through college by working as a pre-school teacher at a well-equipped private school. The job was often challenging, as four year-olds can be, but one of the more nerve wracking and daunting responsibilities was caring for and protecting one particular child named Lily (not her real name). Now Lily wasn’t a particularly fragile child, nor was she picked on any more or less than anyone else, but Lily, as her parents reminded me almost weekly, had severe food allergies. So much so that if she were to innocently run her hand along a table that held a trace of peanut oil left over from a long forgotten peanut butter and jelly sandwich, well she would likely go into anaphylactic shock, or at least puff up like a puffer fish (as Lily once said to me). Thankfully, with tireless diligence and commitment, I was able to avoid such incidents by maintaining clean tables and keeping other nut-munching children at other lunch tables across the room as they consumed their contraband.
Then a funny thing happened. One day, Lily’s mother brought her into school and said that she had enrolled Lily in an experimental program that would effectively “cure” her severe food allergies. I was skeptical on the inside, but enthusiastic on the outside. From what her mother told me over the following weeks was that Lily was going in for testing and various controlled exposure therapies, and that within a few months, she should be “normal.” Again, I was encouraging but skeptical. A few months passed, and Lily was soon declared allergy-free. While her parents were not quite comfortable with the idea of slathering their child with peanut butter, they didn’t seem to be at all concerned about exposure, or even the possibility of her consuming something containing nuts. Miracle cure or coincidence?
Really, it is difficult to know. Now recent news has come to light about how misdiagnosed food allergies are on the rise, while parents continue to unnecessarily avoid particular foods and are spending loads of dough on costly non-allergenic supplements. Needless to say this complicates matters and undoubtedly feeds into parental insecurities. Many of these misdiagnosed food allergies are the result of false positive blood tests that erroneously label children with severe food allergies, sending them on a lifetime of particular eating and vigilant label reading. According to The New York Times, more than eleven million Americans, including three million children, are estimated to have food allergies, most commonly to milk, eggs, peanuts and soy. In addition, general food allergies among children have increased eighteen percent in the last ten years. All things considered, with the upswing in positive diagnosis comes more of a frequency of misdiagnosis, as both parents and doctors come to rely on singular blood tests, rather than a series of tests or the option of administering multiple tests over time. These blood tests, while enormously useful, tend to be somewhat unreliable because they are unable to accurately distinguish between similar proteins in different foods.
But wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry? Well, yes, but besides the relative hassle of keeping children nut-free or wheat-free into perpetuity, there is the issue that by routinely avoiding foods that fall into the suspect category, you might be compounding the problem by creating more sensitivity to certain foods once your child finally tries them. This coupled with the fact that, in very extreme cases, some children are at risk of malnutrition if they are unable to obtain certain vitamins and nutrients only found in the forbidden foods.
So, one answer is to test, test, and test again (with more than one diagnostic method), if your child tests positive to any food allergies. It is often that children routinely grow out of specific allergies (milk, wheat, eggs, and soy, but not so much with nut allergies), which means that a particular dietary regimen at two years old, might not be what the good doctor orders at five.
If anyone out there has first-hand experience with overcoming childhood food allergies, or even an informed opinion on the matter, I am sure everyone would love to hear it. Feel free to sound off.