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Food Allergy

Family Food Feud: Relatives and Allergies

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Some Only Believe It When They See It

A big part of the problem is the invisibility factor: people with food allergies look perfectly healthy, notes Dr. Eyal Shemesh, an associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

“On the one hand it’s a real thing, it could be life-threatening and it has to be accompanied by a significant change in lifestyle,” explains Shemesh, who works with families of kids with food allergies. “But on the other hand – and this is where it’s different from cancer or a major operation, for example – it’s not apparent.”

It seems that Marion Rosen’s family really needed to see in order to believe. Rosen has a serious peanut allergy, and while her husband has always been diligent about keeping her and the potent legumes apart, her mother-in-law wasn’t nearly as careful. One day, Rosen was at a family celebration, and she bit into a cookie that her mother-in-law said was safe. Within minutes, she began experiencing one of the most serious reactions of her life, and was rushed to hospital.

When she was sent home several hours later, the doctors told her that, because of all the allergy medication she had received, she could not safely nurse her baby for 48 hours. The baby, however, refused feeding by bottle – then struggled to swallow the small amounts of solid food he was given, because he was not yet ready for the switch to solids.

After witnessing the reaction and its repercussions, Rosen’s mother-in-law has finally come to appreciate the seriousness of the condition. “Unfortunately I still believe that had she not witnessed that reaction, she would still not be taking the allergy ‘thing’ very seriously,” says Rosen, who grew up in Toronto and today lives in Israel. “But this is not a method of education that I would particularly recommend.”

Fortunately for those with allergies, their relatives don’t always get to witness a full-blown reaction. Yet a common thread in the stories readers sent to Allergic Living is that relatives who hadn’t seen the effects firsthand often presumed the allergic person or parent was overreacting, neurotic or a control freak when describing the seriousness of this condition.

Some May Never Get It

For those who develop food allergies or celiac disease as adults, the process of health education can be particularly problematic, since family members have often seen the person eat the food in question all their lives – so no matter how much explaining is done, it just doesn’t seem to sink in.

Traci Cottingham’s husband did all the right things when he organized a 40th birthday celebration for his wife, who has celiac disease. He ordered a gluten-free cake, bought gluten-free foods, and asked family to bring some gluten-free items for a potluck. When she arrived, Cottingham was told she could eat anything she wanted – a rare and delightful treat.

But the next day, she was doubled over in pain. After a little detective work, Cottingham discovered that her own mother had been too busy to make safe meatballs, and instead had picked up a box from the local grocery store.

“I get that it’s time-consuming, but at least warn me that they have gluten,” says Cottingham. She was so exasperated by the experience that she didn’t speak with her mother for weeks, and took a pass on the invitation for Thanksgiving that year. Things are smoother now, but Cottingham adds, “I still don’t trust her cooking.”

Next: Keep Emotions at Bay

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