Helping Kids Cope With Allergies

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Fall means back-to-school, colder weather and allergy season. As part of Tell Me More's series on chronic conditions, the moms discuss their challenges in keeping kids with food or seasonal allergies safe. Michel Martin hears from regular contributor Jolene Ivey, nutritionist Janine Whiteson, and Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a physician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago whose daughter has a peanut allergy.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we have the latest in our occasional series on chronic health conditions that affect kids and families, and we decided to talk about allergies. Now, this is one of those times of year when people really feel the pain, that sneezing and coughing. That can be unpleasant for adults, but for many kids, allergies can be serious and even fatal.

And we're not just talking, of course, about those seasonal allergies that come and go. New research shows that more kids are suffering food allergies. That means every peanut butter sandwich, every slice of pizza, every fish stick can become a source of worry for some families.

We wanted to talk more about what allergies are, what causes them, how to manage them. So we've called upon Jolene Ivey. She's one of our regular moms contributors. Her 14-year-old son has allergies that cause asthma attacks. Also with us, Dr. Ruchi Gupta. She is a physician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. She does research on food allergies, and her five-year-old daughter also has a peanut allergy.

Also with us, Janine Whiteson, a dietician and contributor to the "Cooking Light Gluten-Free Cookbook." She works with families to help manage kids' food allergies, and she has a son who's lactose intolerant. So welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

JANINE WHITESON: Hey.

RUCHI GUPTA: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And I just think it's interesting that all of us here have kids with food allergies. Both of mine do, different ones. So, Dr. Gupta, I think I want to start with you because I think it's the perennial question: Are, in fact, more kids experiencing food allergies, or are we just more aware of it?

GUPTA: So that's a great question, and I think it's a little bit of both. Our study that we recently published showed that 8 percent of kids in the United States, that's about six million kids, have food allergies.

So if you think of it like a mom, that's about two in every classroom are experiencing some form of food allergy. So I think that's up from what the research shows in the past. Now, we don't have great numbers from a long time ago, but if you talk to anyone, I think they'll tell you in my day, everyone took a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school.

And now we have so many bans on peanuts in schools, so...

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you: Are certain allergies more prevalent than others? I mean, I think by now, if you have kids in school, then somebody has talked about tree nuts, particularly peanut allergies. But that's kid world. I mean, in the general population, are those, in fact, the more prevalent allergies? Or are there others?

GUPTA: Yes. In our study, which was done in kids, you know, until the age of 18, but we did find the most prevalent food allergy was peanut, and then milk, shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, thin fish, then we get into the wheat, and then the soy.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, that covers all of us over here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Now, Janine, as a dietician, you specialize in gluten-free diets for kids and adults. Now, this is another one of those things that many of would have said, well, when I was growing up, you know, never heard of it. So tell us what gluten is and what - the allergy look like and feel like.

WHITESON: Right. Well, gluten is a protein, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. So gluten-free is required for people diagnosed with Celiac's disease, gluten sensitivity and wheat allergies.

MARTIN: And how is this experienced? How would you know if you had it, this sensitivity or allergy or intolerance? How would you know?

WHITESON: Right. Well, if you have Celiac's disease, it's hard to know. Sometimes people feel gas, bloating, digestive issues and allergies, you know, hives, nasal congestion, nausea and anaphylaxis.

MARTIN: Jolene, how about you? One of your kids, one of your sons - and you have five boys - is allergic to dust and animal dander. How did you figure it out?

IVEY: He had asthma, and he was just having trouble breathing. So I took him just to his regular pediatrician, who fortunately was also a pediatric allergist. And he did some tests on him, and at the end, he said, yup, this is what he's got.

And it was good to know. He was really good. The doctor was really good at explaining it to us and how to combat it. So we implemented all of those things, and the first night that Troy slept in a room that was free of dust or anything - it was like totally clean, it's probably never been that clean since, with the air filter and everything - he was so happy. He said oh, my goodness. The air feels so clean.

MARTIN: Well, this raises a question. We were all talking about the fact that many of us grew up in a time when allergies weren't really talked about. One of the reasons I'm thinking of this is that, you know, in one of my kids' classes a couple of years ago, we got a letter from one of the moms who said I am that one that you've heard about. My son is desperately allergic to tree nuts. We have almost lost him twice. And please, no peanut butter, no almond butter. And I just - I was very appreciative of her for being so clear, but I also felt sad that she felt she had to be so tough about it. And maybe, Dr. Gupta, I'll ask you this question as well is do you find that is that a barrier to accept this? Do people just not take it seriously or other than the parents who are directly affected?

GUPTA: Right. And this has been a big problem. We have found that parents feel their quality of life is significantly decreased because of their food allergy. And it's simple. You know, food is everywhere. It's part of everything kids do in society and adults. And so it's so hard to protect your kid from something so common as nuts, or milk or wheat. But what's great now is the awareness is increasing so much. And I think once other parents with kids without food allergy understand how life-threatening it can be, how severe a food allergy can be, they are understanding and they are willing to make sacrifices for their kids, or I should say accommodations more, and I think that's happening a lot more.

MARTIN: But you have this allergies study that, as we mentioned, up nearly 40,000 households with children. And one of your findings was that Asian-American and African-American kids were more likely to get a food allergies but less likely to get a formal diagnosis. Why might that be?

GUPTA: That's a good question. We don't know. One theory we have that we are studying in a follow-up study is that families who have children with food allergies sometimes don't feel the need to go to the physician because they know there's no medicine. Right now there's no cure for food allergy. So a parent with the child with food allergy, as you know, all we can do is raise awareness, try to protect our child, but we cannot give them the medicine every day to protect them like we with seasonal allergies. So we feel like many parents may not feel the need to discuss it. They just try to protect their child.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly parenting conversation. This week we're talking about allergies with Dr. Ruchi Gupta, of Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. She's researched the whole question of children's allergies.

Also with us, Jolene Ivey, one of our regular Moms contributors, and Janine Whiteson, a dietitian and contributor to the "Cooking Light" series. She contributed a book on cooking without gluten. Janine, I'm going to ask you that question too. Do you find, since you work with a lot of families will have an intolerance for gluten, do they have a hard time convincing people that this is serious or to make accommodations? Or do people think oh, come on. You're kidding. Just one slice of pizza won't kill you.

WHITESON: Yes. I - you know, we encountered that. I worked with hundreds of patients, and the families come in and they're very upset a lot of times. They feel that they go to birthday parties and they can bring in separate slices of pizza or gluten-free cake. And half the mothers or fathers at the parties or in schools feel it's great to have that awareness and, you know, that they are supported. And part of the parents out there are not. They think it's sort of sometimes just a fad diet.

And so that was the, you know, the thinking maybe 30 years ago. But now gluten sensitivity, allergies to glutens, Celiacs disease - especially Celiac is, you know, is a serious condition. And I have parents coming to me saying that they're, you know, they don't want to make their kids feel depressed or deprived or feel different over food. So, you know, helping with the food shopping, the preparing of the meals, getting that out there is very important.

MARTIN: Well, let's wheel around and talk about that though, how to manage the situation elegantly so that you don't feel singled out, your child doesn't feel singled out but also that you're missing out on all the fun. You don't want to not let your child go to birthday parties because of something like that. That's not - nobody wants that. So Janine, why don't you start us off. And so first of all, how do you introduce the conversation? And are there some easy accommodations of things that people can do at least to make this a little easier to manage?

WHITESON: Yes. I mean, you know, sitting down, talking to your child or, you know, your teenager, which I sort of have right now who has a condition, and saying, you know, everybody has something at we need him to work on this. Let's look at recipes. Let's look at cookbooks and see how we can sort of integrate this in your life without making you feel embarrassed or upset about it. And get your kids in the kitchen, really. That's what we have done. You know, how do we cook without so much dairy? How do we cook without nuts and seeds?

So if you get your kids involved in their food life, I think that sort of empowers them to get out there and to talk to their friends about their issues. And, you know, even young kids just three and four go to parties now with their gluten-free pepperoni pizzas and their gluten-free cupcakes that look so similar and it's really not much of an issue if we don't make it into sort of a big production and help our kids out.

MARTIN: Jolene, you were saying that you've really taught your son that other people don't have an obligation to accommodate him. He's really got to look out for himself. Tell us more about that.

IVEY: Well, he's got his whole life ahead of him without me being there to say don't let that dog near my child or, you know, make sure it's clean enough in here for him. My bigger concern right now with having a bunch of boys, they really want a cat and every now and then it'll come up that they want a cat. And I just have to go back. I don't want Troy to feel bad about it like it's his fault we can't have a cat. But I just say, you know guys? I've become rather attached to Troy over the years and I'd like to keep him around and he's got to be able to breathe, so Troy breathing is more important than us having a cat. And I have to say that to them every few months because it'll percolate back up. But, you know, that's my bigger concern is him feeling responsible for depriving everyone else of a cat. I should thank him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You don't want a cat. Who are you kidding? You don't want a cat.

IVEY: Not this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Dr. Gupta, what are the other strategies that you encourage your patients and in your own family to employ to manage something like this that can be very serious? Like I say, I mentioned that the letter that this mom sent because it really just it was so heartfelt it really got my attention. But what are some of the other strategies that you employ?

GUPTA: So that, the letter is a great idea - basically making people who are in your child's life aware of your child's food allergy and what could happen if they actually were to ingest the food like she did. You know, he's had two life-threatening reactions. I'm just, you know, scared for him and I want everyone's help in helping to protect him. So first, absolutely have a conversation with your child's teacher, because the teacher is going to be the main person watching over your child every day. So make sure they have the proper medications, know what to do in case of a reaction, know what kind of reactions your child typically has and what to look for, and know the procedure.

Also I would talk to the school's administrator and make sure they have a plan in place for what happens if your child has an allergic reaction in school. And then, like that mom did, talk to your child's friends, you know, so that they all know and the parents are supportive and their friends are supportive.

When we do talk to teenagers who have kids with food - who have food allergies themselves, they say that a support system in school, sometimes their friends stick up for them more than they stick up for themselves. If they go out to eat, their friends will say well, you know, does that have any nuts in it because my friend is allergic. And that makes them feel more normal.

My daughter is five and she's quite proud of her food allergy. She talks about it very openly and asks everyone and tells him that she is allergic to nuts. And at this point it's just it's easier for her because she's so young. But as they grew up into teenagers and you have peer pressure it does get more difficult. So giving that support system to them from the start is very important.

MARTIN: Do you find though, that people even in family settings, that kind of extended family settings, that that kind of vigilance is called for and appreciated? Because one can see a scenario where there might be family members who really do think you're just putting on airs, like what's your problem or you just think you're so fancy that you can't - this is the food we grew up with what's your problem kind of thing.

GUPTA: And in our quality of life research we found that at times, and in my own personal family, you know, you see it where they don't really take it seriously because like nobody in our family has it. There's no way your child can have it. You know, this is my grandkid, they don't have anything, they'll be fine. And it really causes tension. And I was at a support group meeting where around Thanksgiving and, you know, the Kleenex box came out because parents were so hurt by the fact that families wouldn't even accommodate a Thanksgiving dinner because of their child and they weren't invited to their own family Thanksgiving.

This has caused so much conflict in extended families, in marriages. It's a big problem and it's so important to make people understand that not only are food allergies real but in our study we found that 40 percent of kids who have a food allergy have a severe life-threatening reaction. So if people really understood that a child could die and children have died from a food allergy reaction, I think that awareness, hopefully, will change things.

MARTIN: Final thought Dr. Gupta? Final thought about perhaps a word of encouragement to parents who have just found out that their child has a food allergy or some other form of allergy and is upset and is worrying about what kind of life his or her child is going to have.

GUPTA: A big thing for anyone who just found out their child has a food allergy is to join a support group. Because the support groups exist in every state and every city pretty much in the country. You can go to the Food Allergy Initiative is a website where you can get more information about it. But join a support group. Join with other people who are going through it and who can guide you. It is not - these kids are doing great now. I mean there's so much more awareness and there's so much more support that I really am hopeful that even in the next 10 years we'll have a cure. So I think the horizon of food allergy is much better because there's so much interest and importance being placed on it right now.

MARTIN: Okay. Janine, what about you? Final thought from you?

WHITESON: Well, as the doctor said, you know, these food allergies need to be taken seriously. It's not a fad. It's not a gimmick. It's, you know, true to life. And, you know, get the support of your family behind you, your friends, your school, everybody. And, you know, one last thing as far as I'm concerned, you know, I have a teenager now who has lactose intolerance and he has just been diagnosed. And again, some people don't believe him. They think that, you know, he's putting it on, but it's really a digestive disorder that, you know, can be embarrassing for him as well. So these conditions do exist and to please get help. If you feel that something is going wrong go to your doctor and try to get the tests that you need to make sure that you're okay.

MARTIN: What's your favorite recipe in your cookbook?

WHITESON: Oh, in my - oh, it has to be the chocolate layer cake. It is divine and you cannot tell it's gluten-free. My kids adore it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: See, and you can bring that to other occasions.

WHITESON: Exactly. Well, what's coming up, Thanksgiving, Halloween. And you would not know the difference. That's the key here. With "The Cooking Light Gluten-Free Cookbook" you cannot tell with all of our recipes that they're gluten-free because they taste fabulous.

MARTIN: Jolene, final thought from you?

IVEY: Well, when it comes to peer pressure and teenagers it's not peanuts you have to worry about. That's all I have to say.

MARTIN: Good point. Jolene Ivey is one of our regular Moms contributors. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Janine Whiteson is a dietitian and contributor to "The Cooking Light Gluten-Free Cookbook." She was with us from NPR's bureau in New York. And with us from WBEZ in Chicago, Dr. Ruchi Gupta. She's a physician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Ladies, moms, thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

GUPTA: Thank you.

WHITESON: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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