When my son Zane was a toddler, we took a short trip to the Oregon coast. While eating at an oceanfront restaurant, my husband ordered his classic favorite of fish and chips. Everyone had a bite or two, and, when we got in the car after the meal, I looked back at him in his car seat and saw a very swollen eye. It eventually settled, and I assumed he had just gotten something irritating in it.
The next day, we made some fish at home. Being a toddler, he only at a small amount of this and that, including the fish. Within a few minutes, he had developed hives on his throat.
“Do you think he could be allergic ?” I asked my husband, concerned by the back-to-back events.
“Maybe it’s just coincidence?” he said hopefully.
My husband is a fisherman; what kind of cruel joke would that be? To be safe, we stopped preparing fish temporarily, the time for us to get our little man in to see the doctor for testing.
A simple blood test revealed our fears: yes, a severe allergy to cod, tuna, salmon, and more. Thankfully, the very small amounts of fish he had tried did not kick off a more serious medical emergency, but we needed to be prepared if one were to happen in the future. Now nine years old, we have dutifully renewed Zane’s Epi-pen every year, and we live a strictly no-fish lifestyle in our home. When my husband goes fishing, everything is prepared elsewhere or outdoors, and we ensure there is no cross-contamination with food or dishes.
I know many food-allergy families are living a similar existence. According to the CDC, 8% of American children have a food allergy, which calculates to 2-3 kids per classroom in the elementary school setting. There are eight primary foods or food groups that account for most serious allergic reactions: milk, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, crustacean shellfish, and, yes, fish.
Those of us who are living with the fear of a severe reaction are always on guard. When school lunches were still a thing (ah, the good ole’ days), I stressed seeing fish was on the menu. Going to others’ homes, we’d make sure Zane’s fish allergy was known ahead of time. It’s hard on parents and hard on kids, and we can call ourselves lucky. Fish, by comparison to most other allergens, is fairly easy to avoid.
I assumed that Zane would live a fish-free life forever, until I learned about Oral Immunotherapy (OIT), a treatment provided by our partners at Columbia Allergy. At the clinic, the medical team uses OIT to treat anaphylactic food allergies by slowly desensitizing the body to the food through a safe reintroduction process. It requires an ongoing commitment to visits and to a maintenance program in the months that follow.
Zane was all about it. Last week, we went in for his first OIT session. We were allowed to ease into it by doing food challenges with something that his blood test had shown he is not allergic to: crustaceans. Because of the potential crossover with fish, we wanted to ensure he was safe to eat this closely-related food.
After picking up some shrimp from New Seasons, we made our way to the office. The caring team took his vitals at the outset, and we began a slow introduction. Because we were fairly certain he was not allergic to shellfish, we were able to move through the whole array in the matter of hours, starting at first with microscopic amount and gradually moving our way up to an entire piece of shrimp. With each new phase, a nurse checked in on Zane, took his vitals, and asked how he was doing. In between, I worked over the Wi-FI, Zane watched a movie, and the two of us solved a detective mystery. We were out by lunchtime with the all-clear for crustaceans!
He tried lobster and crab that week, and wants to explore new ways of making shrimp. Next, we will introduce mollusks such as clams or scallops.
As a reminder, Zane’s blood tests indicated that he was NOT allergic to these foods at the outset, and this visit served as food trials to confirm. But, it was a good intro into the slower-motion version we might expect in the future. Next up, we’ll do the same thing on a way smaller scale as we slowly introduce fish. Zane has agreed to sharing his journey with Portland Mom Collective readers so that other kids with food allergies can decide if OIT is right for them. Stay tuned for his next update!
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