Danica Claypoole’s son Jesse was 18 months old when the pediatrician said she could give him a small amount of peanut butter. Like a lot of parents, Claypoole was a little nervous about giving her baby new foods. Plus, he’d had eczema, and she recalled reading about a connection between eczema and food allergies.
“I gave him a teeny, tiny spoonful of peanut butter, and he started reacting,” she says. Her older daughter was 2 at the time, so she hurried both kids into the car and headed to the pediatrician’s office.
“I probably ran some red lights,” she says. “I was in a panic.”
The doctor gave Jesse a shot of epinephrine and his itching and hives subsided. A blood panel revealed Jesse was allergic to peanuts and several other foods. Over the years, he outgrew his allergies to wheat and soy, and he’s able to eat tree nuts. But Jesse, now a seventh-grader, is still allergic to peanuts, eggs and shellfish.
Eggs are especially tough to avoid because they are in so many baked goods, Claypoole says.
But learning to manage food allergies becomes a way of life for parents. They’re constantly on guard about anything their child might eat. They learn to read food labels, check restaurant menus and monitor school lunches and classroom parties for potentially life-threatening snacks.
“We don’t really know what it’s like without these allergies,” says Claypoole, whose family lives in West Ashley.
Sleepovers are rare. Claypoole says she talks to his friends’ parents and makes sure they are completely comfortable injecting her son with an EpiPen. Any hesitation could have dire consequences.
Her family only recently started eating out in restaurants, where the greatest worry is cross-contamination. An item on the menu might not have shellfish as an ingredient, but Claypoole has to ask if the French fries are cooked in the same fryer as the shellfish.
Claypoole knows her son can’t avoid restaurants forever, so now she’s teaching him to ask the server these questions.
Managing a child’s food allergies is a full-time job, Claypoole says. She meets with her son’s teachers at Charleston Day School each year. A class trip to go white water rafting meant Claypoole called ahead to the dining staff and the outfitters to find out what food would be served on the trip.
Jesse went to basketball camp at Duke University in North Carolina this summer. Claypoole got a room nearby so she would be on hand if there was an issue. She spoke to the person in charge of dining services and the medical staff. Jesse kept his EpiPen in his backpack.
“It can feel overwhelming,” Claypoole says. “When he was younger, I probably thought he would never go off to summer camp.”
But Claypoole knows her son has to learn to manage his food allergies without her, and she doesn’t want him missing out on life experiences.
“We try to make life as normal as possible,” she says. “Anything he wants to do, we try and make it work. There’s always a way to make it work; it just requires a lot of preparation.”
Allergies on the rise
If you’re thinking that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were a lunchbox staple when you were a kid and no one worried about peanut allergies, you’re right. Food allergies are on the rise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, researchers estimate 32 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.6 million children under age 18. That’s one in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom.
It's tough for doctors to point to one singular reason more children are developing allergies. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, a leading theory is "hygiene hypothesis." Living conditions are too clean, so children aren’t exposed to germs that train their immune systems to tell the difference between harmless and harmful irritants. Other theories include the increased use of antibiotics and environmental changes.
While people can be allergic to dozens of foods, there are eight common culprits: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish. An allergy to sesame is an emerging concern.
About 40 percent of children with food allergies are allergic to more than one food, Food Allergy Research & Education reports.
Peanuts have become a big challenge as the number of children in the United States with a peanut allergy more than tripled between 1997 and 2008, according to a Food Allergy Research & Education-funded study.
While avoiding food allergens is still the most effective form of treatment, Dr. Jeffrey Dietrich with Charleston Allergy & Asthma says there’s quite a bit of exciting new research around oral immunotherapy that could help those with food allergies.
Oral immunotherapy involves gradually administering small, but steadily increasing, doses of the food allergen until the patient is desensitized to it. Early clinical trials show this method to be largely effective, although more research is underway to find out if this treatment could lead to a tolerance of the food allergen.
But still, one of the most important things parents can do is have their child tested so the allergist can provide a specific diagnosis, Dietrich says. Then, doctors work with parents to provide education and resources on how to avoid food allergens, create a food action plan and what to do if their child has a reaction.
Parents helping parents
One of the greatest resources for parents facing a new food allergy diagnosis is other parents.
Daniel Island mom Cathy Leeke founded Lowcountry ROCK (Raising Our Celiac Kids) to help other parents raising gluten-free children. Her 10-year-old daughter Meredith was diagnosed with Celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease caused by the ingestion of gluten. Meredith has been gluten-free for eight years. Locally, Leeke manages an active Facebook group, and parents meet up a couple of times a year.
They help each other navigate the challenges of eating out, school food policies, the best local doctors, treatments and more.
“These local groups play a vital role in community building for families,” Leeke says.
Leeke or another experienced parent often take newly diagnosed families on a grocery store tour to help them find gluten-free products and develop strategies to transition to a gluten-free home.
“It’s extremely overwhelming to take all the gluten out of the house,” Leeke says. “I tell parents to start meal by meal, recipe by recipe. Focus on a few things at a time and, over the course of a few months, you’ve made the transition.”
James Island mom and former engineer Sarah McCrary quit working outside the home because her two children’s food allergies demand so much of her time.
Planning and prepping every meal, managing doctor’s appointments and dealing with food at school are full-time work. Over the summer, she took her two kids — 9-year-old Beatrice and 12-year-old Caleb — on a 2,600-mile road trip to New York. McCrary had to book hotels with kitchens so she could cook throughout the trip. She takes along a bin of cookware, utensils and even an Instant Pot for vacation meal prep.
Her daughter is allergic to gluten, dairy, eggs and soy, and her son has issues with gluten and dairy. Hitting a drive-through on a road trip isn’t an option.
To help other parents handle the demands of food allergies, she started a Facebook group, “Lowcountry Food Allergy Families of South Carolina,” where parents can share resources. She’s beginning to organize meetups and educational programs for local families.
“It’s so important for parents to communicate and exchange stories and ideas,” she says.
Allergy versus intolerance
An important distinction for people to understand is a true food allergy versus a food intolerance. Only about 3 percent of adults have a food allergy, but up to 50 percent report a food sensitivity, says Dr. Thomas Murphy of Charleston ENT & Allergy. Someone might get a bad stomach ache from eating dairy products, but their symptoms aren’t life-threatening.
Murphy himself has a tree nut allergy that was diagnosed when he was an infant. His own food allergy prompted him to pursue a profession as an allergist and it allows him to truly connect with his patients.
“I’m empathic,” he says. “I see it as a parent, a physician and food allergy sufferer.”
People who don’t have a true food allergy don’t always understand the challenges people with food allergies face.
“It’s about being informed. The majority of the population doesn’t have a food allergy but it’s an important thing for people who do,” Murphy says. “Be thoughtful and respectful to people who do. It’s a real thing.” LCP