Helping Your Child -- And You-- Cope
It's important to see an allergist when symptoms are just beginning, even if the child is still an infant. As Rand Malone, MD, president of the Florida Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Association, notes, allergists can better test for and manage these chronic conditions because of their specialized training.
For instance, Malone points out, children with eczema, a fairly common skin condition, are at greatly increased risk for asthma and other allergies. Yet some pediatricians treat the condition with over-the-counter medications and may not tell parents that a trip to a specialist is needed.
"I believe atopic dermatitis (eczema) is a good reason to get a referral," Dr Malone says. "Forty percent of these kids have a food allergy that [their parents] didn't know about," he says.
General practitioners also are more likely to treat the symptoms of various allergic conditions (rashes, congestion or stomach upsets) rather than helping the patient limit his exposure to triggers, Dr Malone says. They also may not consider referring the child to an allergist because they don't know much about them.
"We do our best to educate physicians about what allergists do," Dr Malone says. "We're wellness doctors."
If your child is diagnosed with food allergies or asthma, you'll have to rely on a network of other adults such as teachers and daycare workers, to keep him safe when you can't be with him. You'll also need to educate him about his own condition.
Marlene Barron, PhD, head of school at West Side Montessori, a peanut-free preschool in New York City, explains that the best thing a parent can do is be totally upfront about a child's allergy in the application process.
"You can't just spring it on the school," Barron says. "You always have to be straightforward and open because you as the parent are going to know more about it than the average person is."
Maryanne Wilkins, of Hoboken, New Jersey, says that her son Max's egg protein allergy has been easily managed at the school he's attended since he was three.
"At the Nursery, I made the teachers aware and then announced it at the initial potluck dinner so that the parent population was aware," she says. "A sign was hung at the Nursery to remind everyone. It was most problematic with birthday celebrations. I generally handled it by sending something with Max that he could have as a treat," she says.
Patricia Szobar, of Berlin, whose son Noah, 3, was diagnosed with a milk allergy at seven months, remarks that her son is amazingly responsible about his limitations.
"He knows not to take food from anyone but a small list of approved adults and is completely reliable in this respect. A few months ago at a playgroup, for example, I saw another child offered him a pretzel. I watched out of the corner of my eye to see what would happen, and was very relieved when Noah came over to ask me for permission. He doesn't fuss or complain when he sees other children eating ice cream or birthday cake at parties, which I think is impressive for a child his age."
Dealing with guilt
It's common to feel guilty or responsible when your child is diagnosed with an allergy or asthma. Anne Munoz-Furlong is the founder and CEO of The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), which serves as the communication link between the patient and others. She stresses that parents must understand that any feeling they have after their child is diagnosed is normal.
"Some will be overwhelmed, while some will be relieved because they have a plan. Some people will just be shell shocked. What you want to get to is acceptance," she says.
Munoz-Furlong adds that you shouldn't be surprised if you experience similar feelings whenever your child experiences a "life change" such as switching schools, which means the parents have to trust a new set of individuals to help manage the child's condition.
"Now you've got a new group of people you have to change and hope that they 'get it,'" she says.
Amy Newman's son, Jakob, was diagnosed with asthma, resulting from an upper respiratory condition, when he was seven months old. Newman, of Connecticut, recalls, "In the beginning I was embarrassed. Here was my perfect baby, and I messed him up. In my mind, it was yet another mark against me as a mother. I couldn't breastfeed; my baby was small; obviously, I was to blame for all of these things."
Now that Jakob has grown into an active toddler with a younger sister, Newman explains, "when his asthma is acting up, I tend to beat myself up a bit, although far less than I used to."
The jury is still out on why more children are being diagnosed with allergies than ever before. Some studies claim that our environment has become "too clean" with sealed homes, wall-to-wall carpet and antibacterial soap. A well-publicized report linked asthma with roach droppings. Even studies that show that children exposed to household pets are less likely to become allergic have yet to be replicated.
But chances are great that your child won't be the only one in her group to suffer from allergies or asthma.
Getting appropriate treatment from a trained specialist, communicating about the condition to the child and her caregivers and dealing with your own emotions about the allergy diagnosis will ensure that your child handles her allergies as well as she would any other minor obstacle in life.