Allergies on the rise

Wayne Fairfax of Fort Lawn helps his son Nick, 3, find an afternoon snack. Nick is allergic to dairy and soy products.

(Melissa Cherry • mcherry@heraldonline.com)
Wayne Fairfax of Fort Lawn helps his son Nick, 3, find an afternoon snack. Nick is allergic to dairy and soy products. (Melissa Cherry • mcherry@heraldonline.com)

FORT LAWN -- Nick Fairfax lives in a world without pizza and ice cream. His parents label his cups, telling anyone pouring the 3-year-old a drink that milk is not an option. Before the Fort Lawn family heads to a restaurant, Nick's mom, Kristin, goes online to see if the children's menu includes any soy products.

Easy? No, his parents say, but necessary.

"It's just constant vigilance to keep him safe," said Kristin, 28. "But we're thankful that it is something that we can control."

Nick's food allergies mean he'll likely get sick if he consumes dairy or soy products. And a recently published federal study suggests these allergies have become more common among children.

An allergy is an unusual reaction by a person's immune system to a substance. Food allergies cause stomach or skin problems. Severe reactions can be fatal.

Late last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of children with a food allergy increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2007.

"I don't think there's any question that we're seeing more patients or certainly more questions about food allergies," said Dr. Glenn Errington, an

allergist with Carolina Asthma and Allergy Center, which has eight Charlotte-area offices, including one in Rock Hill. "The general public is pretty sensitive because now, in almost every community, there has been a story or history of someone who's had a really terrible reaction to a food."

The CDC report found that 90 percent of food allergies can be attributed to eight types of food: milk, soy, wheat, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and eggs.

Warning signs

But how do you know if your child has such an allergy?

The Fairfax family learned something was wrong when Nick was just a few months old. When he was given milk formula, he became violently sick.

He also didn't gain weight as quickly as they'd hoped.

But some people thought the first-time parents were overreacting.

"He didn't have your normal spitting up," Kristin said. "It was more like projectile, kind of like the 'Exorcist' scene. Everybody else thought, 'Oh, he's just spitting up.' But nobody else saw how much."

The family switched to a soy-based formula, hoping for a better result.

But then, Kristin noticed tiny drops of blood in her son's diaper. That's when doctors suspected that Nick might be allergic to milk and soy. They switched him to a formula that was free of both substances.

When Nick was nine months old, a blood test showed he had no allergic reaction to anything. So the parents were told to introduce him to dairy products slowly.

Their first attempt was the morning they were leaving for a family vacation to Myrtle Beach. Nick ate less than a teaspoon of baby yogurt. Before the family got to Columbia, he was throwing up. He was sick for more than six hours.

The family was advised to wait two weeks and try again. This time, they offered him a bite of mashed potatoes. Another bad result.

After that, Nick had no dairy or soy products. Later tests would reveal the soy and milk allergies.

Trial and reaction are often how parents learn their child has a food allergy, Errington said.

What causes food allergies is still unknown, he said, although a child whose parents have these reactions is more likely to have them.

"They tend to run in families," Errington said. "(The) more family members that you have with allergies, the more you get suspicious there may be allergies in a youngster as they start to have more chronic symptoms."

Not all symptoms can be attributed to allergies, said Dr. Hal Copple of Palmetto Pediatrics in Rock Hill.

"Personally, I'm a low allergy believer unless it jumps on me," he said. "Because there's so many other things that you can change. Sometimes, it's just the broad spectrum of what is still within normal."

All babies spit up to some degree, he said. Babies can be fussy when they're overfed. Some have heartburn.

"There's many reasons a young child or baby can fuss and cry," he said. "And usually, if the baby's growing, it can't be anything that's really very serious."

Food allergies are rare, Copple said. In fact, the CDC study found that about 4 percent of U.S. children younger than 18 have food allergies, although its findings suggest those kinds of allergies are increasing.

"When it comes to childhood, baby issues, young child problems, everything is more common," Copple said. "Whether you're talking about attention deficit, learning disabilities, behavior problems, I think everything is more common now. There's more access to medical care than there used to be."

Nick's father, 28-year-old Wayne, says sometimes it's difficult to determine if his son is having an allergic reaction or is sick.

To avoid any problems, Nick's parents send special food and drinks with him when he goes to visit friends. They also explain the situation to his pre-school teachers and the nursery workers at their church. And they stress to their relatives, if you're stirring a pot with ingredients Nick shouldn't eat, don't use the same spoon to serve his food.

"A lot of educating," Kristin said. "That small of an amount can make him sick."

Raising awareness

To boost awareness and generate money for food allergy research, Kristin has participated in a Charlotte fundraising walk for two years. Team "Nick-Nack" raised $753 at last month's event.

The Fairfax family hopes researchers someday will find a cure for their son's condition, but they take comfort in knowing that most children outgrow food allergies.

And should that day come for Nick, there are already plans for a party.

"When he outgrows it," Wayne said, "all our family knows it's pizza and ice cream."