I recently hosted a play date for several moms and their children, two of which happen to have food allergies. One child, a little boy, doesn’t have it so bad, at least according to his mother. He can’t eat dairy or drink regular milk, but for the most part, his parents are able to take him to restaurants and other people’s homes without having to worry about something going horribly wrong. The other allergic child–a sweet little 3-year-old girl–is not as fortunate. Her mother told me horror stories about her darling daughter breaking out in hives and gasping for air after eating foods that were supposedly nut-free, but somehow contained nut traces nonetheless. And so when I decided to have these children over, I told myself I would need to go above and beyond to make sure my home was truly nut-free.
The first thing I did was purge my kitchen of all the nuts and nut-related products I could find, and store those items down in the basement, where they wouldn’t be accessible. I then proceeded to disinfect my countertops, kitchen table, chairs, and floor, even though I’d done a pretty thorough job of cleaning and sweeping several days prior. In my mind, it was up to me to scrub away all traces of nut, no matter how long it took.
When my husband found me on my hands and knees, he asked why I was once again cleaning the floor. “To make sure nut particles didn’t somehow get lodged in the hardwood,” I told him. (His response was something along the lines of “you’re a nut particle,” but I took it in stride.)
My logic went as follows: Since nuts are a staple item in our home–we often have them out on the counter for snacking–it was easy enough to construct a scenario where a piece of nut falls on the floor, we don’t see it, the dog magically doesn’t get to it, our toddler ignores it, and it somehow winds up in the hands of the 3-year-old girl who could break out in hives by sneaking that nut into her mouth.
I knew it was pretty far-fetched, and that sweeping alone probably would’ve done the trick, but it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.
See, when it comes to food allergies, I consider myself lucky. I don’t have any, and neither do my husband or child. But I’m certainly no stranger to severe allergic reactions. Many years ago, I had a terrifying moment where I discovered the hard way that I’m allergic to a certain type of antibiotic. My doctor had prescribed something I’d never taken before, but since neither of us had reason to suspect an allergy, I swallowed my pill without giving it any thought. About 12 seconds later, my skin started burning, my body started tingling, and my throat rapidly started closing up. One ambulance ride and ER visit later, I was introduced to the wonderful world of EpiPens, steroids, and the other fun stuff they give you following an episode of anaphylactic shock.
As frightening as that experience was, I’d still take a drug allergy over a severe food allergy any day of the week. Now that I know what medication I’m allergic to, I can take steps to avoid it. But food allergies are different.
The frightening thing about food allergies is that in many cases, avoiding the trigger item or items in question isn’t enough. While shopping for snacks for this play date, I was amazed at how many supermarket products warn that nut traces may be present. For those with severe allergies, cross-contamination is a huge and very legitimate concern. And in really extreme cases, sometimes all it takes is a sniff of the wrong food item to cause a potentially fatal reaction.
Each year, severe allergic reactions cause an estimated 30,000 people to visit the emergency room, many of which are kids. And according to a 2013 CDC study, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. In other words, childhood food allergies aren’t going away anytime soon, and the job of protecting those with food allergies cannot and should not be limited to their parents alone.
So no, I don’t think I went overboard when I prepared for that play date. If it were my child with a severe food allergy, knowing my overly cautious tendencies, I’d be the one in someone else’s house down on the floor looking for nut traces while the other moms chatted away. And while I wouldn’t expect the average person to go as crazy as I did (because most people are not, in fact, as crazy as I am), I do think that all parents–all people, really–should be sensitive to the implications and limitations of childhood food allergies. Or, at the very least, I think we should stop complaining when we’re told we can’t send our kids with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school, and that we can’t bring in homemade cupcakes for that class party. Sure, in a perfect world, we’d rather not be limited. But until science finds a cure for food allergies, it’s up to the rest of us to help keep children–all of our children–as safe as possible.