Living On Edge, With Food Allergies

ood allergies, kids
CBS/The Early Show
When basic foods such as milk and eggs become toxic for children or people of any age, an ordinary meal becomes risky.

Some 11 million Americans have food allergies, including three million kids, observed The Early Show national correspondent Tracy Smith in Part Two of a special series, "Safe Enough to Eat?" The series includes reports airing on the CBS Evening News.

From 1997 to 2002, peanut allergies alone doubled.

So, how do you feed kids with food allergies?

Smith visited a Kinnelon, N.J. family to find out.

In the Davin household, food allergies create a culinary obstacle course for every single meal, every mouthful, every day.

"My two youngest children have food allergies. … It's challenging. … It's just part of our daily lives now," says Grace Davin.

She makes two sets of meals — for her two kids with allergies, and the two without, always making sure there are enough goodies for Peter 6, and Allison, 9, both of whom have the same long list of foods they can't eat.

"I have to avoid milk, eggs, beef, peanuts, lamb, sesame, carrots, walnuts, and any kind of nuts,"
Allison says.

That means no pizza, no chocolate, no hamburgers, no ice cream, no cake or cookies, no peanut butter, no baked anything unless Mom makes it herself.

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"A child and a child's family living with a food allergy is like living in a minefield," points out Dr. Scott Sicherer, a pediatric allergist who leads allergy research at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital. "In reality, every moment of their day, they have to be thinking, 'What do I eat that's safe? Can I eat this, and if I did have an accident…' Imagine the anxiety that's involved in treating a serious allergic reaction."

"I'll make myself scrambled eggs for breakfast," Grace says, "and I'll mix them up and think, 'This is poison.' "

The real fears begin when the kids leave the house.

"You work directly with the nurse, the school, the cafeteria, and you tell them what the allergies are and you make plans with them," Grace explains.

She says other parents are understanding, but even well-meaning friends can inadvertently make the kids sick: "The neighbors wanna help, so they're in there cutting up the meat for the kids and they're just about to cut up the chicken for my kids with the same utensils and you almost want to scream at them, 'Stop!' Sometimes you do feel like you're really paranoid about your children … but these allergies can be life-threatening."

Anaphylaxis, a severe life-threatening allergic reaction, can happen at any time.

But for the Davin kids, reactions have been limited to vomiting and rashes, for the most part.

"We carry epinephrine with us," Grace says. "We carry Benadryl with us wherever we go and, according to our doctors, you never know when it might be an anaphylactic reaction."

Allison is trained with an epinephrine pen, or "epi pen," just in case.

She knows that if, "I can't breath, or if it's hard to breath, (I should) take the gray cap off, slam it into my thigh, and hold it for 10 seconds."

Allison can also read the labels on food packaging, labels that are now required by law to list potential allergens in clear, English terms.

The Davin youngsters seem to take their weird life in stride, Smith says, but eating can sometimes be downright stressful, and they frequently feel left out and isolated.

"When I get sick," Allison admits, "I wonder why its only me and not anybody else, like, 'Is it contagious, or is it for me and only me?' "

"Some people," remarked Peter Davin, "are allergic to nothing, so they could have everything. But I can't have everything, so I have to be kind of careful."

So far, says Smith, the Davins are managing with vigilance and a sense of humor, and Allison and Peter watch out for each other.

Grace is preparing both kids for their teen years, when the most allergy-related fatalities occur. Studies say teens take more risks with foods, and frequently forget to bring their medicine with them when they go out.

As for the rapid rise in the number of people with food allergies, Smith says one theory is that society has become so germ-conscious, so germo-phobic, that our immune systems don't have enough to do, so they attack the proteins in foods.

The series "Safe Enough to Eat?" continues Wednesday on the CBS Evening News with a look at how farm workers are suiting up like surgeons to keep the food chain contamination-free.

The series continues Thursday on The Early Show, with a report on whether food served in school cafeterias make the grade.