Monday, August 13, 2007

Food Allergy Skepticism

I’m practicing wearing contact lenses today. I gotta say… yuck. I don’t like ‘em. This is my fourth day wearing them, and they are irritating. Literally. My eyeballs feel sticky and gummy and cold. Yeah, cold. I don’t get why, but they do.

You’ll never guess what my first thought was.

OK, you did guess: “I wonder if I’m allergic to the solution?”

I wonder why we’re so quick to assign the word “allergy” to anything that makes our body feel funny.

I don’t know if I’m allergic to my contacts. I’m going back to the eye doctor in a couple of days to find out his best explanation. In the meantime, I’m still wearing them for a couple of hours each day so I can make sure it’s not just a “getting used to them” sort of problem. Maybe I’m just being whiney. (Hard to believe, but my husband might suggest it’s a possibility.) But it’s really, really tempting to assume I’m allergic right off the bat, with no data to support it.

Have you ever encountered someone who doesn’t believe you when you describe how serious a food allergy is?

Silly question. Of course you have. We all have.

I can’t figure out why some people don’t believe me. Do I look like the kind of person who would walk up to you and say, “Hey, let me tell you a big, fat lie”?

Maybe part of the problem is that too many people have used the word “allergy” in so many ways for so many reasons for so long, that the word no longer has any impact.

How many people have you heard say they were allergic to cigarette smoke, when really they just hate it and don’t want to be around it? (I admit it. I used that excuse in my teen years, thinking I was being clever and creative. Surely it would have been easier to just say, “I don’t like it,” but that’s teenage logic for you.)

And a huge percentage of folks have pet allergies or common hay fever, which is an allergic reaction to pollens. In most of these people, pollen allergies cause discomfort (or misery) in the form of watery eyes, sneezing, sinus pain, itchiness, etc. But for the majority of sufferers, pollen allergies aren’t usually a life-threatening disease and don’t usually cause anaphylactic reactions. (There are always exceptions, unfortunately.)

So when people hear “food allergy,” they tend to think, “So you sneeze a little. For Pete’s sake, take some Benedryl and get over yourself.” Because most of their experience with allergies up to this point has been either imagined annoyances or the real -- but mostly non-fatal -- hay fever or pet allergies.

And then there’s the confusion with food intolerances. Lactose intolerance is a well-known disease now, thanks in large part to all the commercials for drugs that treat it. But now non-sufferers often think a milk allergy is just lactose intolerance. They don’t understand why we’re so freaked out about whey in the ingredients list of a cracker. “Why can’t you just take a pill?” they ask, annoyed, clueless that a food intolerance is a completely different disease than a food allergy.

So they, and I, and probably you, have developed a healthy skepticism for the word “allergy.”

I don’t know what to do about it, though, short of coining a new word for life-threatening food allergies, or using the adjective “life-threatening” in front of the word “allergy” in all my conversations. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t like using that term on a frequent basis in front of my impressionable 8-year-old.)

I guess I’m resigned to having to explain patiently to the uninitiated, over and over. A little education goes a long way.

I’m also vowing to be careful how I use the word “allergy.” So when I go see the eye doctor, I’m not going to say the word. I’m going to describe the symptoms, and let him suggest possible cures. And if he says “allergy,” I’m going to ask how he knows. Maybe there’s a test to prove it.

How do you handle people who don’t believe how serious a food allergy is? Do you have any ways of explaining that seem to get through, without creating a new enemy? Let us know your tips!


Jones Family said...

This is one of my BIGGEST pet peeves. It just drives me crazy how people with a food intolerance like say they are allergic. There is a big difference. It’s been so frustrating trying to explain to people that our daughter is allergic to peanuts. Well meaning listeners usually will then try to relate to this in someway by telling us how they are allergic to things too-like how their sister’s cat makes their child itchy. It’s not the same people! So I suppose I have made a few enemies (and when you have a child with a life threatening food allergy you start to care less about how many enemies you have and focus more on the safety of your child), but now I usually say something like, “oh, can your child die in a matter is minutes?” It’s frightens me to even say the words, but somehow when you use the word die/death/life threatening/stop’s breathing, it gets your point across.

Alright, enough venting. When people really do care and want to understand my daughter’s condition, I just try to explain it to them as best I can. I tell them what happened when she was previously exposed and how serious it was. I talk about the epi-pen and always having to read food labels. I tell them about how to work with my daughter so that they can help her to be responsible for herself (she is only 4, so this is a tough one). Eventually those that really care will get it. And the others, I just try not to let them get under my skin. I try to avoid certain situations (like potlucks and birthday parties of those who don’t understand the seriousness of her allergies) and I tell myself that they just don’t get it because if they did, they would be more understanding.

Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...

Cara -- take heart! At 4, kids really do start to understand their allergy. Mine is 8 now, but by the time he entered kindergarten, he was able to tell anyone who would stand still long enough to listen that he was allergic, and he could read well enough that he could find the word "peanut" in an ingredients list. He's now his own best advocate. You'll be amazed at how strong your daughter will get at defending herself (in that charming 4-year-old way!). -- Kelley

shillman said...

If your eyes feel "cold" wearing contacts, I wonder if your corneas are reacting to less oxygen. Back in ancient times when contacts were hard, that was a huge issue. It's possible your corneas are particularly sensitive.

Great site, great posts - it's time families dealing with food allergies had a place to network and work on common issues.

Good luck going forward!

Mica said...

great blog!!!!
I definitely agree that most people are clueless about food allergies - but then I probably would be, too, if I didn't have to deal with my son's dairy and nut allergies every day. And yes, kids do learn fast and they will learn how to read labels on their own, ask people what's in that food they are being served etc.
One thing I have found really helpful is teaching kids how to prepare/cook their own meals. It gives them a measure of control and it's fun (in a chemistry lab sort of way.) Since pre-packaged foods can cause so much grief and are less healthy anyway, teaching them to prepare good food from scratch is a great way to prepare them for the day when they leave home and Mom (or Dad) isn't there to watch over their food intake...

Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...


You're right. My son loves to cook. (Using measuring cups and spoons is also a good way to teach adding and fractions!) I've also learned that baking a cake from scratch isn't nearly as hard or complicated as I used to think it was, and my son is learning that lesson, too. Thanks for writing!

nykki and erik said...

I got this quote from another web site and have used it a few times and it worked. I have a two year old daughter and I deal with people who question me all the time since we found out when she was so little 7 months old. my favorite question is why did you have her tested so young... i had my reasons and I'm glad i did since her egg and peanut allergies are very severe... hope this qoute helps any one it has me

--I put it into perspective once for another mom who didn't understand why i was so concerned about her son eating a pb&j sandwich next to mine. I said would you feel comfortable if a loaded gun were sitting arms distance away from your son? Because that what a peanut is for mine. If he touches it, takes a nibble or just smells it, the consequences could be horrific. An innocent little peanut for your son, for me, is a loaded gone for my little boy. And he isn't worth the risk. She looked at me like she was in shock and said she never thought of it that way. ( another concerned parents )