This is the first installment in a series on food allergies. Here you’ll read about my daughter’s early-warning signs of food allergies, her first allergic reactions, our experiences with food allergy testing and the diagnosis.
All about food allergies – part two includes a Q&A on food allergies, information on how to find an allergist, support group information, and helpful books and blogs.
All about food allergies, part three reveals how manage our daily lives with food allergies. I outline our practices around grocery shopping, storing food, our emergency kit, and emergency identification.
Avery, shown here at 15 months, is a happy toddler who has life-threatening food allergies to eggs, milk (all dairy), peanuts and soy. We also avoid fish, shellfish and tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, etc.).
My daughter Avery was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies a few months ago, throwing our family into a frenzy of activity we never expected and setting us on a new course. Caring for a child with food allergies can be scary, but I’ve learned that with education, support and partnership, it is entirely manageable.
When I first learned about Avery’s food allergies, I immediately went into research mode. I tracked down books, organizations, support groups and other families with food allergies. Now other families are turning to me and this blog for guidance and support. This series of posts is intended to give an overview of Avery’s individual circumstances, how we manage her food allergies, basic education, and a list of resources I’ve found helpful.
How we found out
It seems fitting to begin at the beginning – how we found out there was a problem. Let me start by saying that we don’t have a history of food allergies in our families. I did not avoid peanuts or any other food while I was pregnant or breastfeeding (something I would definitely do different if I could go back and time, and definitely if I were to have any more children).
Like most mothers of children with food allergies, I suspected there was something wrong very early in Avery’s life. She had awful eczema, despite the very sensitive (not to mention expensive) lotions and body wash we used. We were given ointments to use, prescriptions for steroid creams, advice on bath frequency, but nothing was helping. I can’t remember how many times I took her into the pediatrician’s office to try to figure out what was going on with her skin.
He quizzed me on the types of formula I used – did I switch recently? No, she had only had breast milk. I asked (many times) if the food I was eating could be contributing to Avery’s eczema. He insisted it could not – he said incorrectly that the latest studies showed food did not pass through breast milk. This was wrong. Although his intentions were good, I’ve learned definitively that food proteins (which can cause the allergic reaction) are transferable through breast milk and can contribute to eczema and other reactions in infants.
Her eczema continued to be a challenge, the worst was her scalp. She would scratch it so hard and so often that she would get sores and scabs. This broke my heart and I would lather her scalp in baby oil, Aquaphor or body lotion at night to keep it from itching. But it wasn’t until we started to give Avery milk products in crackers, yogurt and cheese, around 8-9 months, that she really started to look strange. We didn’t know it then, but what we were seeing were outward symptoms of her food allergy to milk. The dark circles under her eyes are known as allergy shiners, and the rash around her mouth and on her face was a combination of contact reactions to the protein in milk and eczema flare-ups from ingesting milk. Here are some pictures where you can see this happening.
At Avery’s first birthday party, we gave her a cupcake with frosting. I’m guessing it contained milk, eggs, soy (vegetable oil) and was possibly cross-contaminated with peanuts. She tried one taste of the frosting, in front of a rather large audience, and declined the rest. I then tried to coax her to eat more. I’ve since learned that babies (and adults) with food allergies often reject foods they are allergic to, even if they don’t realize it.
I tore off little bites of the cupcake and fed it to her. Within moments she started arching her back to get out of her high chair. She acted like we were punishing her, when we were trying to celebrate! She started scratching at her scalp and face, so I quickly wiped her down and got her out of her chair. I gave her a dose of Children’s Benedryl (something we did occasionally when her eczema was really bad). Then I noticed how irritated the skin on her face and and scalp was, so I applied hydrocortizone ointment. All she wanted to do was breastfeed to be comforted, so we had some quiet time in her bedroom while the guests waited.
I never thought to check the rest of her body for hives or other signs of distress. Within about 20 minutes I could tell she was feeling better, but she was subdued and not very happy. Here you can see her during her gift opening, the top of her forehead and above her eye are still quite red.
At this point I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. I gave her cow’s milk in a cup a couple of days later – I expected she would start drinking cow’s milk at one year old, but she had some red, raised bumps and I couldn’t tell if it was just her eczema flaring up or hives. Her one year appointment was in another week and this time I was going to insist on food allergy testing. I had brought it up before, but her doc wasn’t convinced it was necessary. I decided to keep pumping breast milk at work for at least another week, even though I desperately wanted to ditch the pump!
Unfortunately Avery’s one year appointment was delayed another week because I had to attend a funeral. It was during that week when she had another reaction. I made scrambled eggs for dinner (a rare treat). Avery had never had eggs before, and I was excited for her to try them. She was now older than one year old and allowed to eat them… I didn’t realize that eggs were one of the top 8 food allergies or I definitely would have waited. I gave her a couple of pieces and she ate them. I tried to give her more, but she refused and signed “all done.” I knew she was hungry, I didn’t understand what was happening.
I took Avery out of her high chair and began changing her clothes. I noticed she had some splotches (hives) on her chest. Her forehead started getting really red. Then the splotches turned into puffy, red streaks. She began scratching her chest and crying. I started to worry. I gave her a dose of Children’s Benedryl and ran a bath. I was watching her very closely and thought the bath with a soothing oatmeal packet would help. She started crying hysterically and the whites of her eyes turned red. She coughed a couple of times. I called the pediatrician’s office and spoke with a nurse. She was very concerned and told me to get there right away or call an ambulance.
I now know that Avery was having a severe allergic reaction, and today I would need to administer the EpiPen and call an ambulance. At the time, though, I put her in her pajamas and drove her to the doctor’s office. He gave her more Benedryl and monitored her for the next hour. She stabilized and he sent us off for a blood draw to test for food allergies. He said to assume she was allergic to milk and eggs and gave me a prescription for an EpiPen to pick up on the way home.
A diagnosis, but no plan
It took 10 more days to get the results back due to technology problems in the lab. Meanwhile, not knowing any better, a couple of days later I made scrambled eggs again. This time they were just for Alex. Shocking to me, Avery had the same reaction as before. I was afraid and didn’t want to use the EpiPen. So I gave her Children’s Benedryl (we should buy stock), and luckily, the reaction stopped. I know now that Avery is severely allergic to eggs and can have a reaction if exposed to airborne particles from steam rising off of eggs.
Over a week after the blood test, we finally had our results. Avery was allergic to milk, eggs, peanuts and soy. The doctor said to assume she was allergic to all tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, etc.), fish and shellfish, as chances were very high she would be and not to take any chances. He gave me a referral to a board-certified pediatric allergist. If you live in the Twin Cities and would like his contact information, e-mail me.
It took two more weeks to get in to see the allergist and I was beside myself. What could I feed my child? How could I keep her safe? What about daycare? Did we have to throw away the peanut butter? I was scared for the present and future, and also felt guilty about the past – like giving her birthday cake that wasn’t safe for her to eat. And giving her those foods through my breast milk all those months without realizing how it was affecting her.
And all of this came during a very difficult time in our lives – Mitch and the kids had been in a car accident and we were trying to find a replacement car and deal with the emotional trauma, it was the holidays, a close family member was having a significant mental health crisis that we were trying to help with, and my friend Emilie had just died, leaving behind two small children. I seriously was at my limit of what I could manage. Figuring out what to serve for dinner when everything in the house seemed unsafe was almost more than I could bear.
But there was hope, and we made it through this difficult time. I’m happy to report that four months after her diagnosis, Avery is an extremely healthy, happy toddler. In fact, she’s much happier and healthier today now that we now what’s going on with her and are managing her allergies appropriately.
Next, read All about food allergies – part two to learn about finding an allergist, support group information, helpful books, blogs and more! Thanks for reading!
You can find more of my food allergy posts, tips & recipes on my Food Allergy page. I’d also love to connect with you on my Marketing Mama facebook page and twitter. This post, and all posts on this blog, are written from my experiences as a parent of a child with food allergies. I am not a medical expert and encourage you to consult with a doctor on your personal medical situation.
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