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'All it takes is one wrong chocolate bar or snack': What it's like to raise a kid with severe food allergies

Ciara McDonnell speaks to two parents whose day-to-day routines involve endless vigilance.

Image: Shutterstock/MNStudio

This article was updated on 10/10/18.

BACK IN 2016, a teenager named Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died on a flight from the UK to France after having an allergic reaction to sesame seeds in a baguette she had purchased before boarding.

The sesame seeds were not listed as an allergen on the packaging. Instead there were general signs around the shop, as per the UK’s legal requirements for stores producing food on-site.

An inquest into Ednan-Laperouse’s death last month once again brought up the question of how companies should deal with food allergen information. But as any parent of a child with allergies will tell you, managing a child’s allergies at home, at school and out in the community is about much more than food labelling. 

In Ireland, 4% of children now have a food allergy, according to the Irish Food Allergy Network, meaning that almost every reasonably sized classroom in Ireland is likely to have a child with a food allergy.  

Tiernan White is eight years old and was diagnosed with a severe allergy to eggs, wheat and nuts at six months old. While he has grown out of his wheat allergy, and is slowly growing out of his allergy to eggs, nuts remain a severe issue and can cause anaphylaxis. For his mum Patricia White, vigilance is part of the day to day routine.

The medical pack goes everywhere

“On a daily basis, his medical pack, which contains adrenaline and antihistamines must be with him always,” she says.

Even just going to the playground or the beach for a walk. You never know when someone is going to offer him the wrong chocolate or treat when your back is turned or you’re distracted.  

shutterstock_1176439867 Source: Shutterstock/Pau Esteve

“It’s vital that we are always aware of what he’s eating, so we always ask questions. Going to birthday parties or to someone’s house for dinner or a BBQ I will always contact the host in advance and check what’s on the menu and offer to bring something for Tiernan.”   

Laura Kenny’s sons have a dairy intolerance, or to give it its technical name, a non IgE mediated cow’s milk protein allergy.

“The ‘non IgE mediated’ part means the reactions don’t appear immediately after eating the cow’s milk protein, but can be hours later. For my sons it is usually sick stomach and bloating,” she explains.  

Kenny now runs her own dairy-free information and recipe blog and says that education is key when it comes to understanding how serious food allergies can be, not just among parents who are directly affected but among society as a whole. 

I wish other parents knew that all allergies are potentially fatal. I am very lucky that the boys don’t have life threatening allergies to milk but there are plenty of children who do. Being told ‘at least it’s not a nut allergy’ is not very helpful for these parents.  

“On a less serious level, sometimes I wish other parents would realise how amazing it is if a child with allergies is included. It might seem a small thing, but seeing my child’s face light up when there’s a treat they can have or they can be the same as everyone else is magic.” 

shutterstock_1103040260 Source: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com

White agrees. “We have found most parents of Tiernan’s friends to be totally on board with embracing the nut-free rules. They’re always happy to speak with me before an event to make sure they have something to make him feel included,” she says. 

However, I am also amazed at how little people understand about food allergies. When Tiernan was a baby and I’d decline a well meant offer of a biscuit or bread stick for him and explain he was allergic to wheat, people assumed it was a lifestyle choice rather than a condition. 

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As children with food allergies get older, it’s important to foster independence and encourage them to take charge of their allergies in public spaces. 

Kenny is finding new ways of navigating the allergy minefield, as her boys are getting older. “My younger son has just turned seven and it’s not cool to stay at parties with him anymore,” she laughs.  

“I usually phone or text the parent hosting the party beforehand to see what treats they will have and I will send something similar but safe with him, like a dairy free cake.”

It feels a bit awkward but people are getting more used to this and other parents are generally delighted to help and don’t mind you asking about ingredients. I think the key is that your child understands the seriousness of the issue themselves and that they know to be careful.

There are wonderful facilities out there for those of us suffering with food allergies, and utilizing them makes life infinitely easier, says White. 

“There are fantastic services available through the FSAI and the HSE ensuring there is correct labelling. The FSAI has an excellent alert service where staff there will send out a text and email if they’re made aware of an accidental cross-contamination of an allergen in the production of food. This makes food shopping and eating out so much easier for a food allergy sufferer.”

At home, Patricia says Tiernan’s learning to be careful himself, but come the teenage years that could change. 

We’ve always spoken with Tiernan about his allergies, and he’s now reading the ingredients on food packets and wrappers at home and he’ll read menus carefully when we’re eating out.

“We have to encourage him to do that so he has the tools he needs when we’re not around. The teenage years are going to be tricky… I keep looking at teenage boys clothes wondering where he’ll keep his allergy medicine when he’s a teenager and I’m not standing beside him at all times!”

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