Amid the splashing and swimming at Lake Powell, Danielle Johnson's father stared down at his six-month-old daughter who had a perfect handprint on her bare back from where he had lightly touched her. Some milk had gotten on his hands, so as a test he dipped his finger in milk again and traced an 'X' on her back. The red reaction on her skin made it evident that his daughter had an allergy to foods containing dairy.
Danielle Johnson is part of the growing demographic of children under 18 in the United States who have food allergies, a group that increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Theories for the causes of food allergies range from the hygiene hypothesis, which argues that excessive cleanliness and low-exposure to germs renders children's bodies incapable of discerning between the dangerous and the benign, to children's premature introduction to potentially allergenic foods, said Eleanor Garrow, vice president of education and outreach of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. However, nothing has been proven conclusively.
Food allergies can produce reactions as mild as hives and a rash and as severe as an anaphylactic reaction, which causes the airway to close off, Garrow said.
The Johnsons experienced several scares with anaphlaxic reactions, starting with their daughter Danielle, whose babysitter once mistakenly gave her cow's milk. As a precaution the Johnsons kept their youngest, Aimee Johnson, away from many foods after she showed allergic symptoms. However, when Aimee Johnson was a toddler, she ate a Reese's Pieces from a candy dispenser and had an anaphylactic reaction.
"It's that same horrible wheezing sound," said the girls' mother, Julie Johnson. "They can't breathe. They can't get a breath in. They can't get a breath out."
It's best to avoid the allergen entirely to guard against reactions like this. However, one treatment in clinical trials — desensitization — may be a solution for those with severe food allergies. Desensitization follows the same idea as allergy shots, according to Robert A. Wood, M.D., a pediatric professor and chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Johns Hopkins. The idea is for a patient to be exposed to small amounts an allergen — for instance 1/10,000 of a peanut — under closely monitored conditions. The allergist will gradually increase the exposure over one to two years to build an immunity. The most common risks are a rash or itchiness after treatment. However, because of the risk of an anaphlactic reaction, the doctors pay special attention to those receiving this treatment. Desensitization is currently being tested with milk, eggs and peanuts.
This is just one of many efforts being made to help families struggling with food allergies. Another recent development has been food manufacturers putting warning labels on most foods that could cause an allergic reaction. In the past Julie Johnson would spend hours grocery shopping to ensure the foods she purchased were safe. Because of warning labels her shopping time and level of concern have both been reduced.
Julie Johnson does not insist on a peanut-free school or for schools to cater to her daughters' allergies. Instead, she taught her daughters assertiveness early on. The girls tote allergy-free treats to birthday parties and prepare food on Zodiaq countertops at home (granite is too pourous and may retain allergens). Julie Johnson's experience has shown her that precaution and prevention are key.
"It's not if it's going to happen," Johnson said. "It's when it's going to happen."
See foodallergy.org for more information on allergies.