Monday, May 11, 2009

How severe are her food allergies?

This is a common question.
We have no way of knowing. Despite what you may have heard, there is no test for the severity of a food allergy. All tests are binary – yes/no, black/white, off/on. And unfortunately, a person’s past reactions are not necessarily a good predictor of what future reactions will be. (As a parent, that is one of the most frightening aspects of food allergies to me. You can’t rest assured that hives today mean hives tomorrow. I have read horrifying accounts of people with only 1 mild reaction at age five, followed by an anaphylactic reaction at age 30 resulting in death. GOOD GOD, I CANNOT HANDLE READING THAT STUFF!) So, when you hear someone saying that their child has a “severe” food allergy, this probably means, (a) the kid clearly does, because he has experienced a truly severe reaction in the past, or (b) the parent just needs you to understand that any allergy can become “severe” without warning and therefore needs to be treated as such. All of that said, I think we can all think of people we’ve known who say things like, “my mouth itches when I eat strawberries.” They try to avoid the problem food but go through life occasionally eating it without major incident. So, in my mind, I think there must be such a thing as a “mild” allergy, it’s just hard (if not impossible) to know if it will stay that way. On the topic of severity, the brain (or my brain, anyway) can easily be fooled by the numeric results of the blood and skin tests. It’s very tempting to assume a higher number means a stronger severity, when in fact the test only measures whether or not a person is allergic. The higher the number, the greater the doctor’s certainty that a positive result is accurate and not a false positive, but that’s it – it’s not an indication of severity.

All of that said, we have been lucky so far - no anaphylaxis here. All of Georgia's reactions have amounted to hives, immediate itchiness on her hands and face and in her mouth, and in some cases, the sudden onset of coughing, which of course has been the scariest symptom, simply because it involves her breathing and makes us nervous about whether the reaction is going to escalate or subside.

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