A severe food allergy makes life a little harder for 11-year-old Haley Pittenger.
She can’t eat the same foods as kids in the school lunchroom or trick-or-treat for candy at Halloween.
And she’s usually the only girl carrying a life-saving shot of epinephrine everywhere she goes.
Most of her classmates know about her dangerous peanut allergy, but some just don’t get it.
“The harder part is when they don’t understand,” Haley said. “This one kid asked if I would immediately die if I touch one. That didn’t really make me happy.”
Food allergies, or anaphylaxis — a severe allergic reaction — afflicts 1 in 13 children, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s two in the average elementary school classroom.
To help others like them in the Baton Rouge area, Haley and her 10-year-old friend Kadence White are trying to connect families living with severe allergies to develop a community where everyone understands.
In late January, they hosted a conference at the East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library, matching kids and their families with professionals who could help. Drug company representatives handed out coupons or literature while speakers — doctors, a therapist and a chef — lectured about living with food allergies. A dozen families attended the two-hour program.
“Our kids were pretty much having trouble figuing out how to find answers to the way they were feeling in social situations,” said Kadence’s mother, Tarsha White, in explaining the need for such a program.
After her daughter was diagnosed with allergies to milk, peanuts, seafood and wheat, White began looking for parents struggling with similar issues.
“There was nothing here in Baton Rouge, no support programs,” said White, a licensed social worker.
When White met Haley’s mother, Barbara Pittenger, the two families became close, planning play dates and cooking safe meals together.
They shared scary stories of taking an ambulance ride after eating foods that seemed safe. Both girls carry epinephrine pens with them at all times, prepared to jam the needle into their thighs if they feel the signs of an allergic reaction — including itching or swelling in the mouth or hives.
After the girls decided to create a food allergy conference and support network, the mothers helped make it happen.
“Our daughters became very influential,” White said. “The more they go through, the more passionate we become.”
They want to educate lawmakers about policies that affect children with food allergies and talk to teachers and other parents about caring for allergic children.
“It’s difficult to get that across to people without being overbearing at times,” Pittenger said. “It’s difficult for you to let go and trust that person in the event that something does happen. It’s hard on both sides. If we can be comfortable and be educated, I think that’s the key.”
Parents of children with food allergies must continually educate their children, said Andrew Kolb, who attended the conference with his 9-year-old son, Nicholas.
“It’s good for him to be more aware of his allergies,” he said. “You can’t always be with them. He needs to be more aware of what he’s eating and ask what is in it.”
And families have to be vigilant about the makeup and manufacturing process of every bit of food their children ingest, White said.
“We as parents deal with this every day,” she said. “This is a 24-hour-a-day job.”
Living with food allergies
Experts who spoke at the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Awareness Program listed a number of tips in dealing with the everyday threat of food allergies.
Be cautious with other peoples’ children. Sometimes children do not know they are allergic to a food because they have never tried it, said Celeste Gill, a chef whose daughter has food allergies.
“Don’t be the first to give a child a new food,” Gill said.
Don’t focus on the negative. Instead of considering the foods you cannot eat, remind yourself that you are taking care of your body, Gill said.
“You’re not depriving yourself,” Gill said. “You’re saving yourself.”
Prepare more fresh foods at home. Prepared foods may carry trace amounts of other foods, such as peanuts, that can cause a severe reaction.
“The more you’re dining out, the more your risk increases,” Gill said.
Learn the signs of an allergic reaction. Parents should monitor the behavior of their younger children to see if they are allergic to any foods, said Dr. Patricia Schneider, a St. Francisville pediatrician.
“A child is not going to say, ‘I’m going into anaphylactic shock.’ A child will be irritable or their stomach will hurt or other symptoms,” Schneider said. “We all need to be aware.”
Always be prepared. The first line of defense in treating a severe reaction is an epinephrine shot, which people with serious allergies should always carry, said Dr. Prim Menon, an allergy specialist.
“If you don’t have your epinephrine, nobody can help you,” Menon said.