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Suddenly, a food allergy

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

A crash course in food risks

I've always liked to think of myself as sensitive to food allergy issues. I have a friend with a son with severe food allergies. When they come to visit, I know to stop using the allergens in our meals days in advance, clean and clean again, and keep all labels and recipes out and ready for inspection. SO far, that has gone well - but it's always been a relief to know it's a temporary thing.

EpiPen

This summer, however, a food allergy has developed in our family. After years of no problems at all, Alfs developed an allergy to shellfish. Out of the blue one day, while eating some steamed shrimp I'd made for guests (and as he had dozens of times before), he said that is throat felt itchy and that it felt like it was closing up.

Oh.

Stop, we said. Don't eat any more. Wash your hands and your face. How is your breathing, we asked. Fine, he said. And we watched him closely for about half an hour, ready to take him to the hospital if we needed to. The feeling passed for Alfs, but my husband and I knew that things had changed.

Verify the problem

First thing, we took Alfs to the doctor for a blood test. The test came back positive for the allergy to shellfish, ruling out some other allergy related to preparation. We were then referred to an allergy specialist and to several websites about food allergies to start educating ourselves. We were given prescriptions for EpiPens.

I was in something of a shock initially. I thought we'd dodged this kind of thing after initial food introductions when the kids were small. And even though I have been able to offer sensitivity and compliance with friends dealing with food allergies, this was completely different. This is a level of regular vigilance that is totally new to me - and I have to help educate an adolescent, too.

Educate yourself

Through various online sites, I am educating myself about what to watch out for in restaurants and in prepared foods. While I've always been a label-reader, now I have to be even more careful.

Alfs also has to be proactive, and he's old enough to do that. When he goes to friend's houses, his EpiPen goes with him, and he has to let his friend and his friend's parents know about the allergy. As much as I need to stop and think in food situations, so does he.

Our education was furthered when we saw the allergy specialist. We learned more about management, and how the allergy could get worse with further exposure. He trained Alfs (again) on using the EpiPen himself, and reminded us that asthma-like symptoms in a food setting are probably the food allergy, not asthma, and the inhaler won't help.

Living with the allergy

After learning more Alfs' risks and about the dangers of cross-contamination, I was more than a little anxious the first time we went to a restaurant after all of this came up. I hadn't considered, initially, that if a restaurant fries shrimp and the same oil in which it fries French fries, those fries aren't safe - even the rest of the meal is prepared cleanly. Because of this, for at least the time being, we as a family are avoiding seafood restaurants and Asian restaurant - places where shellfish is a significant part of the menu.

But I can't shelter my son from dangers forever, either. He has to still live his life, and we do, too. On that note, armed with our EpiPen, we went to out to dinner. Alfs did an amazing job asking about how the food was prepared, telling about his allergy, and choosing appropriately. The restaurant was excellent and told us they prepare such food completely separately from other food. Phew.

On one hand, this kind of a food allergy is rather manageable compared to others. On the other, we still have to be careful and thoughtful on a daily basis. We're just beginning our journey with this and it still feels odd - perhaps one day it will feel like second nature to us. Until that time, vigilance and the EpiPen are new, very close friends.

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