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Food Allergy

When Allergies Make You: Afraid of Food

Lauren Alexander came to know that feeling. The 24-year-old was diagnosed with a life-threatening allergy to tree nuts as a baby, and other than the occasional reaction, she had been leading a normal life. Then in the spring of 2006, a reaction to some nut-laced salad dressing at a restaurant plunged her into a world where she felt surrounded by foods that could kill her. Alexander, who lives in Washington State, dropped 20 pounds in two months.

She even began taking Benadryl before eating – just in case. “This huge swell of paranoia came over me,” she explains. “It was like nothing I had ever experienced.”

Dr. Scott Sicherer says cases of food fear such as Schwartz’s and Alexander’s are not at all unusual. Sicherer is an allergist, associate professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Understanding and Managing Your Child’s Food Allergies. Nearly every day at his New York office, he sees food allergy patients who express varying degrees of anxiety.

Some become afraid to eat, in rare cases to the point of anorexia; others become panicky when they feel the slightest allergic symptom; some severely restrict the foods in their diets; and others withdraw themselves or their allergic children from society in an attempt to prevent reactions.

Such responses may appear to be irrational, but Sicherer uses an analogy to make sense of them. “If I stood next to you, pulled out a gun and held it at your head,” he says, “you’re going to shake, you’re going to sweat, and you’re going to fear for your life, because you know that gun could hurt you. So if you’ve been hurt by food, that type of fear can become a huge part of your existence.”

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IT BECAME part of daily life for Pamela Lee, a Vancouver teaching assistant. Her son, Aaron Schroeder, was a toddler when he had his first major food allergic reaction: after eating a peanut butter cookie, his whole body swelled up and his breathing became labored. He fully recovered, but his mother’s psychological response endured for years.

“We would go to the beach and there seemed to be peanut shells everywhere. They probably always were there, but I had never noticed them. I began to feel like Princess Diana in the minefields,” Lee says.

Soon, she was terrified to feed her son any food he hadn’t eaten before, and told him that if he even touched a peanut he would die.

But while she was desperately afraid, Aaron was wild and fearless – the kind of kid who would use the top of a plastic storage container to sled down the basement steps or test a hot stove with his finger.

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.