Here’s a maddening scenario:
Your young daughter has made a new friend and has been invited over to her house to have a sleepover. You want your daughter to have a fun experience and be invited on other playdates too, but you also want her to stay safe. You decide to talk to the new friend’s parents to explain that your daughter is allergic to milk.
“She can’t have any dairy or dairy products.”
“No dairy or dairy products? Are you all vegan or something?”
“No. I said she’s allergic.”
“Oh, so she’s lactose intolerant?”
“No. She’s allergic.”
“Well, if she has an upset stomach or something we’ll call you and you can pick her up early.”
“Her allergy won’t show up that way. I need you to call me immediately if she shows any sign of a rash, swelling or trouble breathing.”
At this point, you get the impression the other parents view you as some kind of unreasonable helicopter parent, and you highly doubt that the severity of your daughter’s allergies are understood or that your requests will be followed. You also aren’t sure whether your daughter is ready to keep herself safe, even though you’ve been teaching her to be her own advocate.
Many of us would grind this whole sleepover plan to a halt right then and there, but let’s say you decide to send your daughter to the house with her own food, advise her not to eat or drink anything but water, review how her epinephrine auto-injector works and when to use it, and tell her to call you if she feels even a little bit funny. Your baby girl has to step out into the world on her own at some point, right?
Even though you barely get any sleep that night, all goes well and you pick up your daughter the next morning. She’s happy and healthy.
You get to talking with the parents.
“You know, she really isn’t allergic.”
“Yeah, we let her have a muffin for breakfast. And there you go. Nothing happened!”
Now your heart is pounding and you’re filled with a mixture of relief that your daughter really IS fine, anger at the parents for not listening to you, anger at yourself for trusting your daughter with them despite your better judgement, perplexed as to why your daughter would accept a muffin even though you’ve been trying to teach her not to take food that hasn’t been vetted by you first, and frustration that you now have to educate this family that milk and eggs sometimes don’t cause a reaction if they are in baked goods.
You can’t believe these parents didn’t know food allergies could be so severe or that they thought it was okay to tempt fate.
Did they not even know that food allergies are real?
You decide your daughter is never having a sleepover with new friends until some serious two-way education takes place, and your Mama or Papa Bear instincts are on high alert.
Why Do Some People Not Think Food Allergies Are Real?
This scenario might be hypothetical, but the attitude of the parents is not. Some people truly do not know or understand that food allergies can land a person in the hospital, or even in the morgue.
At the root of the problem is that food allergies are often confused with other conditions or diets, such as:
- Food intolerances or sensitivities. These problems are rooted in the digestive system, where certain foods are difficult for some people to break down. This might cause gastrointestinal upset if the food is eaten in large quantities. Trace amounts generally don’t cause a problem.
- Celiac disease. Celiac disease is described as an autoimmune disorder in which a protein called gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, causing painful gastrointestinal upset. Trace amounts can cause a problem.
- Dietary choices. Some people choose not to eat certain foods for ethical reasons or because they are trying to address other health problems that may be associated with that food (like high cholesterol). If such a person were to accidentally eat a food they generally avoid, their life would not be in immediate danger.
To make matters worse, the people who confuse the above with food allergies aren’t just “outsiders.” People with food intolerances might mistakenly refer to their condition as a food allergy. Their behavior then paints an inaccurate picture of how someone with a food allergy actually has to live his or her life.
In addition, some people who make certain dietary choices have decided that explaining their preference as a food allergy is an easier way to make their choice known to people without inviting a slew of questions. But the way they order food at restaurants will confuse both servers and friends alike.
The result is that the general public has a watered-down sense of what “food allergies” really are. Food allergy parents then come across as being completely unreasonable in their requests, even though a common understanding of food allergy severity is vital to keeping their children safe in schools and elsewhere in the community.
What has been your experience? Have people around you been receptive to your requests, or have you ever met a “food allergy denier”?