Tiny Little Needles-Food Allergy Parenting

Have you ever had an allergy skin prick test? Here’s what happens at our allergist… They clean your back with alcohol, and then write with a permanent marker to label where each section of tests will happen. And then they press groups of 8 tiny needles into your back that contain things you may be allergic to. They push down with those 8 little needles needles and wiggle it a bit to make sure the allergens transfer. And then they do another and another – sometimes they cover your entire back. Then you wrap up in your johnny and shuffle back to the waiting room to hang out with other strangers in their johnnies for 15 minutes.

If you’re lucky, everything is negative. But, since you’re clearly there for one reason or another, this is probably not the case. What’s more likely is that at least one, and probably several, of the allergens they injected you with will cause you to break out in itchy, red welts. They measure these welts (called wheals) to determine your sensitivity toward food, animals, trees/plants, and other environmental factors. If you have a lot of allergies, or your reactions are strong, you can expect the itching to spread under your arms like a miserable hug. Regardless of your itchiness level, you’ll sit with your new friends in the waiting room for the whole 15 minutes. Not scratching.

Back into the testing room, you’ll wait while the nurse painstakingly measures and examines each and every prick. You’re still not allowed to scratch. Eventually, she puts cortisone cream on all of the wheals to stop the itching. But it’s not over yet. It’s possible, even likely, that the allergist wants follow-up tests on those pricks that came up negative. The process begins again on your arms, with a stronger dose of allergen. Back into the waiting room again for another glorious 15 minutes. By now, the other johnny-wearers are either your new BFFs, or you think they’re some of the most annoying people you’ve ever met. It could go both ways.

I went through this yesterday with my 7-year-old. He was lying face-down on the exam table with his back exposed and, although he had put on a brave face, I could see by the way he held himself that he was terrified. The nurse was fantastic, but it wasn’t enough. He knew this was going to suck. I tried to soothe him and talk him through it, but I watched him wince each time a panel of needles went into his back. He wasn’t complaining, but I could also see him quietly wiping tears from his eyes. I’m not the biggest softie of a parent, but the sight of him trying so hard to be brave just broke my heart.

The nurse told me that she normally has to hold down kids his age. She said that they fight this test. Having gone through it myself, I know why. I am so proud of my little guy who powered through, only to be told that his food allergies were the same, and in some cases, worse, than before. That he still has to be super careful of what he eats, and that Halloween is still going to be a challenge. He’ll still be bringing his own cupcakes to birthday parties, and food samples are forbidden.

Food allergies suck. And, unlike other life-threatening illnesses, people don’t take them seriously. There are those who don’t believe they’re real. People shave their heads to help kids with cancer, but they freak out over not being able to eat a peanut. If you could save a dying child by not sending milk for a classroom snack, would it be worth it? Because essentially, that’s what you’re being asked, only these kids aren’t dying yet. We’re trying to stop the dying part.

Being the mom of a kid with food allergies is a scary place to be. They don’t understand the consequences yet, so we do all the worrying for them. Yesterday I asked the doctor about a new blood test which is able to measure, with some degree of certainty, if a person is likely to have an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts (as opposed to a milder allergic reaction). He told me that with the size of the wheals on my son’s back, he wasn’t going to be eating peanut butter any time soon. My response?

I don’t care if he ever eats peanut butter, peanuts, or any other nut. That’s not at all important to me. What I care about is if I need to worry that some day a stray bit of peanut is going to kill my child, most likely because someone is being lazy or careless.

I’m not sure what difference the results will make. I can’t really worry more, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to worry less. Perhaps “good” results will help somehow. I can skip telling our new soccer coach that I’ll provide wipes in case the kids have snacks before practice. I can relax a tiny bit more when we’re sitting in a crowded space in front of someone eating nut products. I can let go of the anxiety that whoever washed the dishes before me in a rental house may have left traces of peanut butter behind. Maybe I can even stop stressing that I’m not teaching my child well enough to save his own life.

Then again, maybe that’s just parenting. Some days are just full of those tiny little needles.

* I tried to find a picture to use as an example of his skin test results, but I couldn’t find one that accurately represented just how strongly he reacted. When that bummed me out, I stopped looking.

4 Responses to Tiny Little Needles-Food Allergy Parenting

  1. Ugh. Thanks for letting us in on something most of us will never have to go through. If I had to guess why many people don’t take food allergies, I’d say it’s because there’s such a range. One kid might break out in hives while another could die from the same exposure. If a kid gets cancer, there’s an automatic assumption that a life is at risk and all the sympathy that comes with it. I don’t think people mean to be callous, they just don’t have the exposure to it. So thanks, again, for the exposure.

    • Thanks. It’s true that there is a range of reactions, but the fact is that you can never know when a food allergy will escalate from hives to much, much worse. The last few publicized food allergy deaths are good examples. In the first, she had never had anything worse than hives, but three epi-pens didn’t save her. In the most recent, the boy had never had a reaction to the food before the one that took his life. I know food allergies aren’t cancer – they are highly manageable if we all work together to take them seriously. I guess that’s part of my point – we march and fundraise and rally around a lot of illnesses. This one means labeling for allergens, training wait/kitchen staff, putting off a favorite lunch or snack til another time, and being generally considerate. Imagine if that’s all it took to keep people from dying of cancer?

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