I didn’t want him to be the ‘peanut-allergy kid’: What it’s like to have a child with severe food allergies.

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Betsy and her husband, Hansen, have raised two children with severe food allergies, a condition that makes birthday parties, Halloween, going out to eat, and other social situations tricky to manage.

But Betsy and Hansen have been doing it for years now, learning along the way. They realized their son Haskell had severe food allergies when he was just 10 months old. Peanuts, pecans, walnuts. He reacted to all of them. Two years later, they had a girl, Sage, who is also allergic to peanuts.

The kids are now 6 and 4, and the parents have been managing the allergies with a new form of immune therapy called SLIT, or sublingual immunotherapy. The treatment involves placing liquid drops with small doses of a particular allergen under the tongue, holding it for two minutes, then swallowing the drops.

The goal is merely to lessen a reaction when exposed to an allergen. Researchers still haven’t found a cure for the allergies, but some treatment strategies can improve chronic symptoms, safety, and quality of life for those who suffer from them.

Betsy and Hansen don’t have food allergies, but Betsy now uses SLIT to treat seasonal allergies.

Here are seven things Betsy wishes she’d known six years ago when she first became the parent of a child with a severe food allergy.

(Note: Dr. Nikhila Schroeder at Allergenuity Health Associates reviewed this article to ensure medical accuracy.)

(1) Your child won’t have to be socially isolated.

When Haskell went to school, Betsy worried about the social implications of his allergies.

“My big source of anxiety was he’d be bullied or isolated at a nut-free table,” she says. “I didn’t want it to define him. I didn’t want him to be the ‘peanut-allergy kid.’”

She said you’ll occasionally hear stories of middle-schoolers putting a nut in the drink of a student with a food allergies, creating a very serious medical situation out of what they imagined was a harmless prank.

The possibilities still alarm her, but for the most part she’s found the people her son interacts with are kind and empathetic.

To her surprise, five of Haskell’s 22 classmates also have food allergies.

The issue, she said, is so prevalent that many of Haskell’s friends are aware of their classmates’ allergies, and they notify parents about what their friends can and can’t have during playdates.

haskell sage - I didn't want him to be the 'peanut-allergy kid': What it's like to have a child with severe food allergies.

(2) Reactions to allergens vary depending on what’s going on with your child’s immune system.

Betsy said Haskell’s tolerance levels vary significantly depending on how he is feeling and what type of environment he’s in — and parents need to be aware that these factors play a role in successfully managing allergies.

“If you have pneumonia, you’re much more susceptible to having a severe reaction than if you’re healthy and strong,” Betsy said. “If there’s high pollution in the air, you’re more vulnerable. Your body can only fight so much. Some people say, ‘I have an allergy, but it’s not severe,’ when actually it’s, ‘You haven’t had a severe reaction yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.’”

(3) What works for your kid may not work for others.

It took four years for Betsy and Hansen to fully understand the treatment options that were most effective for Haskell.

“For some kids avoiding (the allergen) and carrying an Epipen is a good fit. For others you might want to try one of these emerging treatments.”

(4) Food allergy research has progressed significantly in just a few years.

Betsy said the knowledge base about food allergies and how to prevent them has grown tremendously, even in the time between the births of Haskell and Sage. She shared the LEAP study, which examines the difference between avoiding feeding kids allergy-risk foods until they’re five, versus feeding them these foods when they’re just a few months old. The study found that children who were exposed to peanuts between four and six months old and then kept eating peanuts for five years were much less likely to develop an allergy.

“With our son, we didn’t know anything, we didn’t feed him peanuts,” Betsy said. “With our daughter, I was like, ‘I’m eating it when I’m pregnant, I’m eating it when I’m nursing, I’m feeding it to her in her rice cereal when she’s four months old.’ We’re like, ‘We declared victory! She’s not allergic!’”

They didn’t keep peanuts in the house because of Haskell’s allergy, so when Betsy and Hansen fed their daughter peanuts again at age 2 1/2, she broke out.

Betsy said they thought they did the right thing by exposing their daughter to peanuts as an infant, but you actually have to keep feeding your child peanuts for it to work.

(5) You’ll get skilled at navigating meals outside of your home.

When they learned about Haskell’s diagnosis, Betsy and Hansen were wary of eating at restaurants.

They avoided Asian restaurants and ice cream shops, due to high risk of cross-contamination and the prevalence of peanuts in menu items.

However, as Haskell continues to receive SLIT treatment and the family continues to learn more about life with severe food allergies, they’ve gotten more comfortable dining out. Betsy says she uses the Parents of Allergic Kids Facebook group for guidance on places that are particularly allergy-friendly.

Some spots that she’s found to be accommodating include Burtons and P.F. Chang’s. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is another family favorite, because they use sterilized scoops and brand-new bins for serving those with allergies.

Anxiety around mealtime can become a serious issue, so Betsy’s family is trying to walk the line between ensuring their son takes his health situation seriously and not making him afraid to enjoy food.

“There’s always that continuum of social and safety and you don’t want them to be afraid to eat. We’re trying to empower him with information and tools,” she said.

(6) Halloween and birthday parties can prove challenging.

A few years ago, at a birthday party, Haskell burst into tears when he had to sit to the side and watch his friends eat cake. Betsy always comes prepared with an alternative treat option, but this time he was adamant: he wanted that cake.

Now, though, Betsy says her son is old enough where they can have a back-and-forth about the situation.

“I can say, ‘It’s not fair, but it’s your responsibility to keep yourself safe. I promise you we’ll always come up with a substitute. But you’re responsible to not do something dangerous just because it’s tempting.’”

Halloween can be another difficult night. Betsy suggests letting kids with allergies trick-or-treat with their friends, then taking the goodies home later to sort and see what they’re able to eat.

The family has also come up with a clever concept called “The Switch Witch.” Haskell and Sage put the candy they can’t eat into a basket, which they place outside their door. The “Switch Witch” comes and replaces the candy with treats that are safe for them, as well as a small toy.

They also set out teal pumpkins to raise awareness for food allergies, and pass out only non-food items at their home, like glow sticks and slap bracelets.

teal pumpkins - I didn't want him to be the 'peanut-allergy kid': What it's like to have a child with severe food allergies.

(7) Know the difference between an allergy and an intolerance.

Today, nearly everyone knows someone who avoids gluten, dairy, or other foods, and some may define their avoidance as an allergy.

But getting a bad stomachache after a glass of milk is different from facing anaphylaxis if you eat a peanut.

Betsy urges parents to be certain they have total clarity on the health situation they’re facing, and that they get a proper allergy diagnosis, which comes only from a board-certified allergist and not from conclusions you draw from Google.

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