Linda Devoogd | Muskegon Chronicle
Wendy Hanson-Borgman knew something was wrong when her two-week-old daughter seemed to have almost constant intestinal distress and started developing pus-filled blisters on her bottom.
A pediatrician told her to avoid peanuts, and later all nuts, while she was breastfeeding young Izabel. While the baby was thriving for the most part, she still had loose stools and a cough – which another doctor diagnosed as anaphylactic shock — when the throat begins to swell shut because of an allergic reaction.
After tests and months of trial and error with formulas because Hanson-Borgman couldn’t produce enough milk, Izabel was diagnosed with allergies to peanuts, almonds, walnuts, coconut and soy at age 13 months. the Muskegon Township family had to drive to Grand Rapids to see an allergist who specializes in children’s reactions to food.
Now, more than a year later, Izabel is thriving and her parents have learned to read every food label, Hanson-Borgman said. Soy shows up in unexpected places, like chocolate and the breading of chicken tenders, and vegetable oil and cooking spray typically include soybean oil, she said.
“It’s in everything. It’s in cheese, it’s in meat, it’s in bread,” she said. “We don’t buy boxed food anymore. We cook everything from scratch so we know what we put in it.”
It’s difficult to know what causes food allergies, said Dr. Nancy Brooke, the Grand Rapids allergist who treated Izabel and several other Muskegon children, but one thing is clear: delaying introducing new foods to children won’t reduce their risk. In some cases, children seem more likely to outgrow their food allergies if their first exposures came through breast milk because their mothers had eaten the offending food, she said.
“Let them try whatever they want to try,” Brooke said. “If they’re meant to get allergies, they’ll have them no matter how cautious the parent is.”
People who are genetically predisposed to have food allergies have an immune reaction the first time they eat certain foods, Brooke said. the body reacts to the food by producing antibodies — cells that identify foreign entities and tell the immune system to attack them. Normally, antibodies identify bacteria and viruses, helping to keep the body healthy, but sometimes they attack harmless substances like peanuts or eggs, triggering unpleasant symptoms.
Some researchers hypothesize that people are developing food allergies because, unlike their ancestors, their immune systems aren’t being kept busy fighting off infections from unsanitary conditions and periodic disease outbreaks. others think people with food allergies might have different bacteria in their gastrointestinal system, Brooke said, or that a lack of fresh foods and omega-3 fatty acids, primarily found in fish, may play a role. still others are investigating the ways foods are processed and whether a lack of vitamin D early in life could play a role.
If parents suspect their children might have an allergy, they should write down the symptoms and the foods the child ate before having them and consult with their pediatrician, Brooke said. but they should seek immediate help if a child’s mouth or throat starts to swell. Food allergies can be diagnosed with a blood test or a skin prick, in which a small amount of the allergen is placed under the skin of the arm and monitored for redness and swelling.
Less than 5 percent of adults and 10 percent of children have food allergies, Brooke said. People may think they have food allergies, when in fact they have a condition like lactose intolerance, Celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome.
“There’s still argument if it’s actually increased or if we’re just getting better at diagnosing it,” she said. “I don’t honestly think they’re getting more common.”
It’s also difficult to tell if the most common allergens tend to shift over time, she said, because some people might not have pinpointed the source of their allergies, or might have mistaken another problem for a food allergy.
Those with severe food allergies should carry an Epipen, which is filled with the hormone epinephrine, Brooke said. Epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline, keeps blood pressure from plunging and reopens airways. Parents shouldn’t hesitate to use the Epipen if they see their children having symptoms, she said.
“Most people wait until it’s too far along in the reaction to use it,” she said.
Allergic reactions typically become more severe with each exposure, Brooke said, which means avoiding offending foods is the best policy. Some children have to eat the foods to get a reaction, while others have a reaction if the allergen touches their skin or if they are in the same area as the offending food.
“the less exposure an allergic child has to (an offending) food, the better. the hope is ultimately they’ll outgrow it,” she said.
Avoiding exposure becomes more difficult as children get older, though.
Ken Sanford, of Laketon Township, said his 6-year-old son, Ross, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs and milk. when he was diagnosed at age 6 months he also was allergic to apples and corns, but outgrew those sensitivities, Sanford said. he can’t eat school lunches and the family has to be careful about eating out, because allergens turn up in surprising places, like popcorn popped in peanut oil or hamburger buns made with milk and eggs, he said.
Several other students have nut allergies, though, so Ross’s classroom at Muskegon Catholic Central Elementary went nut-free and the lunch room sets aside a table where no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are welcome. Sanford said the family sends Ross an egg-free cupcake when they know the other kids are going to bring in birthday treats, and they keep allergen-free foods like popsicles and Oreos on hand at home.
“He’s grown up with it, so he’s really good about it,” Sanford said. “If somebody gives him something, he knows not to eat it unless we check it out.”
For some, just not eating certain foods isn’t enough, though. Yolanda Blaser, who recently moved to Twin Lake to stay with family while her husband deploys to Afghanistan, said her 3-year-old son Wesley develops hives if he even touches milk residue.
“If (other children) have a milk beard and they wipe it on a blanket or on a toy and he plays with that toy, he would get hives on his hands,” she said.
Fortunately, the hives only last about an hour, and sometimes disappear if the exposure was small and she wipes the milk away quickly enough. Sometimes, she rubs foods like bread on his skin to test if they have milk in them so he can avoid the strong stomach pain that comes from eating dairy.
“I used to get over-paranoid if he would get even one,” she said.
Blaser advised parents of kids with allergies to be patient, because people who aren’t familiar with food allergies don’t always understand.
“you have to educate everyone else that you’re around,” she said.
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