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Christine Skopec/ MEDILL

Kids built a 100-foot, peanut-free PB&J sandwich Saturday at Kohl Children's Museum

Increasing frequency of food allergies alarms parents

by Christine Skopec
May 14, 2014


Christine Skopec/ MEDILL: Information provided by Food Allergy Research and Education

Trips to the ice cream shop, play dates with friends and snack time at school make it fun to be a kid but they can be the most troubling times for parents of children with food allergies.

Although kids can be allergic to any number of foods, the most common are peanuts, tree nuts, seeds, fish, shellfish, eggs and milk. They often lead to the most severe reactions as well.

Keeping watch over every morsel of food her son, Cooper, 5, eats is a daily concern for Skokie mother Ellen Izenson. Cooper is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts so eating a spoonful of Nutella or a swipe of peanut butter could be devastating.

“He doesn’t understand yet,” she said.

Izenson is one of a growing number of parents who find themselves raising a child with food allergies. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, an organization dedicated to research and raising awareness about allergies, about one in every 13 children has a food allergy and about a third of them have multiple allergies. From 1997 to 2011, food allergies increased by 50 percent.


An estimated 6 million children have food allergies in the U.S.

Despite the rise in food allergies, Dr. Scott Sicherer, a professor of pediatrics, immunology and allergy at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said parents must see an allergist in order to determine whether an allergy is really at play.

“Food allergies can be misunderstood or misdiagnosed by a family,” Dr. Sicherer said.

Dr. Brian Rotskoff, an allergist in Chicago, estimates that only about 20 percent of kids he sees actually have a food allergy. There is still a possibility for a food intolerance, though, and it can be tough to distinguish it from an allergy and harder to diagnose.

A child with a food sensitivity might have an upset stomach after eating the food sometimes, but not necessarily ever time.

“Food allergies are very reproducible,” Dr. Rotskoff said, which means the child will have a reaction every single time they are exposed to the food. The specific reaction, though, can vary. A child might break out in hives one time and experience a blocked airway the next.

Allergies are also diagnosable with testing, while intolerances are not.

“Intolerances - there’s no way to test for them,” Dr. Rotskoff said.

The first step for a parent who suspects a food allergy is to bring their child to the allergist as soon as possible.

The allergist will try to track the history of the child with the food in question to make sure the symptoms seem consistent. They run “skin testing or blood testing that usually confirm or not confirm what our initial thought was,” Dr. Rotskoff said.

While allergies can be scary and somewhat unpredictable, parents can educate themselves about their family history because allergies tend to run in families.

It’s not quite as simple as inheriting eye color from one parent, though. “It’s more subtle than that,” Dr. Sicherer said.

Once a child is diagnosed, parents need to make sure that they are diligent about watching what they eat. They also need to learn what steps to take if in case of an accident.

Dr. Sicherer says it’s crucial for parents to learn “how and when to use self-injected epinephrine,” an emergency medical treatment, because it could save their child’s life. The most severe allergic reactions can cause the throat to completely close off the airway.

While Izenson takes every necessary precaution at home, she realizes there is always the potential for something to go wrong, especially when Cooper is away with friends, at school or visiting his grandparents.

“The people that take care of your kids have to be as vigilant as you,” she says. And as Cooper grows older, he will need to learn about what foods and ingredients to avoid.

Although research about allergies and finding treatments continues, there are no proven cures. The best thing parents can do to protect their children is to learn as much as possible and then let their kids live their lives as normally as possible.

“That child should be allowed to do everything that the other children can do,” Dr. Sicherer said.

May 11-17 is food allergy awareness week. For more information visit Food Allergy Research and Education’s website: