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The Dangers and Treatments of Food Allergies

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Cats, peanuts and dust. What do these things have in common? If you’re a parent of a child with allergies, you already know. More than 50 million Americans, including millions of children, suffer from some type of allergy. But for kids, the prevalence of food allergies is a growing concern.

Grant Neurohr is a happy kindergartner at Jenks who loves nothing more than playing with all his friends. And while this is only his first year at the school, when it comes to lunch this 6-year-old knows exactly where to go, the nut free table in the cafeteria.  

“Schools now are more sensitive about food allergies,” explains Libby Neurohr, Grant’s mom. “His school has a nut-free cafeteria table and all of his teachers remind parents that if they bring something for everyone, it should be nut free.”

Schools all over the United States have started establishing allergy policies for their students, and they have good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food allergy causes more than 300,000 ambulatory care visits each year involving children under 18. The CDC also found a 20 percent increase in food allergies from 1997 to 2007, 8 percent of those affecting children under the age of 4. That means your children are more likely than you were to have classmates with allergies—or to have one themselves.

Grant actually has two different allergies. He is allergic to all nuts and also egg whites. As a baby he had even more allergic reactions to food, but grew out of most of them by the age of one. Food allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein. If Grant ingests nuts, for example, the food triggers a sudden release of chemicals, including histamine, resulting in symptoms of an allergic reaction. The symptoms may be mild such as rashes and hives or, as in Grant’s case, be severe with trouble breathing, wheezing and loss of consciousness. Food allergies can even be fatal if the person doesn’t get help right away.

“We were scared when we first found out,” Libby said. “As a working mom, there was always the constant worry of, what if he had a reaction and we weren’t there?”

That’s why Grant carries an Epipen Junior with him everywhere he goes in case of emergency. His parents make it a point to talk with him about his allergy as much as possible.

“From the moment we knew he was allergic, we basically trained him to ask ‘are there nuts in this? I’m allergic to nuts,’ every time someone hands him something to eat,” Libby said.

It’s a lot for a young child to keep up with, but doctors say that new treatments are providing hope that kids like Grant will someday be able to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich worry free.

“It’s called oral immunotherapy or desensitization,” explained Dr. James Love, a pediatrician and allergists at the Allergy Clinic of Tulsa. “We’re slowly depleting the body of histamines over a period of time.”

Oral immunotherapy is a fairly new treatment for people with allergies. The Allergy Clinic of Tulsa is currently treating approximately half-a-dozen children. The process works by feeding allergic children minute amounts of the food they have reactions to, then carefully increasing the amounts over time in order to desensitize the child to that food. In the end, it’s actually the very thing that makes them sick that also makes them well.

“It’s been effective in everyone we’ve treated,” Dr. Love said. “But it’s still not a cure. Once they’re desensitized, they have to continue eating that food forever or there is the chance they could have allergic reactions again.”

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