Guest: Amy Wicker
Guest Bio: Amy started a new online resource for millions of families around the world who are impacted by food allergies. AllergySafeTravel is a website for people who are travelling and they need to find hotels with kitchens or restaurants, health food stores, and other medical facilities.
Health Professional Radio – Travelling With Anaphylactic
Katherine: Thank you for joining us on Health Professional Radio. Today our guest is Amy Wicker. Amy started an online resource for millions of families around the world impacted by food allergies. AllergySafeTravel is especially designed for parents with food-allergic children, and it’s a great way and a resource to find kitchens, restaurants, health food stores and medical facilities when people are actually travelling. As a mother of two daughters herself, with one who is anaphylactic to milk, eggs and nuts, she knows first-hand what it’s like to be a parent who experiences severe food allergies in a child. Welcome to our show, Amy.
Amy Wicker: Thanks! Thanks very much for having me. I appreciate the interest.
Katherine: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How you started this online resource?
Amy: Well, my second daughter came along back in 2004. At about the age of six months, her skin was just a mess. Her cheeks were messy. They were red and they were oozing. I could not get them to heal. At that time, I thought, “What is going on?” It was funny at that time, because I loved eating cashews. And one day I ran out of those cashews, and lo and behold – when I stopped eating those cashews, her face started to clear up. I was breastfeeding her at that time, obviously. And I’m like, “Oh, wait a minute. I think there could be a connection here.” So that kind of started us on this very long journey. And I myself have food intolerances and sensitivities.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate a lot of my safe foods, thinking that would be the best for her, but it turns out that my safest foods – the dairy, the nuts, the cashews, those are her worst offending foods, which, I think to myself, I look back and I look at the research that’s been done, and I really think she was probably exposed too much while she was in utero. Anyway, it’s then a daily challenge, it certainly changed the way we live. I now have to anticipate everything. I try to stay two to three steps ahead of her every move. I need to make sure the environments we’re in is safe for her.
Her allergies are actually triggered through contact, inhalation, and ingestion. If she touches a surface that may have ice cream or milk, anything like that on it, she will immediately develop hives, and oftentimes that can lead to breathing problems and wheezing. She has the asthma component to go along with the food allergies, which puts her at higher risk for anaphylaxis.
Amy: Her allergies are also triggered through inhalation – for example, I learned the hard way. I would take her with me into Starbucks. They’re always steaming the milk. Those milk proteins become airborne. She was inhaling those milk proteins, and then she couldn’t breathe. She would have an asthma attack. We’ve learned what we can and can’t do over time, but it’s a process and it’s certainly changes the way you live your life on a daily basis.
Katherine: Exactly. It’s a good point that you say that she is so sensitive. I think a lot of people think anaphylaxis, children or even some adults, it needs to be ingested. But it’s very interesting the points that you bring up, that it is in the air as well, and how sensitive she actually is to it.
Amy: Yes, and I do think, for whatever reason with the prevalence rates going up the way they are… we’re not sure why that is, but we’re seeing more and more people with those types of triggers, airborne, in contact. Those are very real issues.
Katherine: Right. You might not have the answer to this question, but there seems to be a huge rise in allergies in general, such as gluten intolerance and it just seems like there seems to be more, I guess, these last few decades than there were in previous decades. I don’t know because we have access to more information or whether or not it is on the rise, but I have a feeling it’s on the rise. Do you have any thoughts of this?
Amy: Yeah. I tell people I really think that for different people, there can be different causes. When I look back at my family history, my grandfather, my great-aunt, they had food allergies, but they didn’t call them food allergies back then. But we now know that they had food allergies. A friend of mine is a food allergy researcher here in Chicago area. Her name is Dr. Ruchi Gupta. She does a lot of food allergy research. She recently did a study.
They mapped food allergies across the US and they found that children who live in urban areas tend to have higher rates of food allergies than those who are living in rural areas. They’re really looking at environmental triggers. I think there is that. I was part of a support group at one time, and we were all sitting around the table talking about how all of our children had anaphylaxis to certain food proteins. We were all comparing notes, and it turns out that all of our children had a very serious upper respiratory illness when they were infants. It’s called RSV.
It’s a very serious upper respiratory virus. It affects the immune system. So really, who knows? I’ve talked to Dr. Gupta about the virus connection, which they’re looking into that as well. But I really think for different people, there can be different reasons why. They’re looking at genetic – and I think genetics certainly play a role in it. It’s certainly frightening, the rate at which those numbers are increasing, just in children alone. The numbers have more than doubled over the past decade.
Katherine: Yeah. I wanted to touch on the point that like you – and you found out your daughter was, at about eight month’s of age – very often parents realised their children are highly allergic or anaphylactic the first time when it is an emergency, sometimes they go into shock.
Katherine: At a very young age, maybe when they start introducing solids into their diet as well. Do you know of any tests or what parents can look out for when they’re introducing new foods to their children?
Amy: Yeah. It’s interesting because they were some allergists – and I think these are allergists who are more old-school – they wouldn’t start doing food allergy testing before the age of five. I don’t agree with that, because I think we’re seeing more and more those food allergies are affecting kids at younger and younger ages. What I would do for my daughter – it was very clear from the get-go, when I started to feed her solids, that she was not tolerating foods well, or antibiotics for that matter. She broke out in rashes and hives. She itched her skin until it bleed. She was really quite a mess.
I got to the point—because I knew food, we’re going to have some issues. I would always take the food before I gave it to her, and I would put it on the inside of her wrist or on the top part of her lip, and I would see. And if she didn’t have a reaction to it, then I would give her a few spoonfuls. I was very cautious with how I introduced foods. At one point in time, when she was about a year old, she could only tolerate five foods. It really felt like… I would stand at the kitchen counter almost in tears, thinking, “What am I going to feed this child?” I had nothing to feed her.
Amy: I was very cautious. Some allergists may agree with me, some may not. I’ve heard allergists say, “Well, that’s just a ridiculous idea.” But you know what, that worked for me.
Amy: And I really think no two people are alike, no two allergies are alike, and no two reactions are alike. You kind of have to find your own way and find what works for you, but that, for me, was a great test in introducing foods to my daughter.
Katherine: Right. I don’t know if it’s the same in the United States, but definitely in Australia, if you work in a child care, for example, they all have to have current anaphylactic and EpiPen training, and staff can’t take any nut products to work. Is this the same in the states?
Amy: I think, Australia and Canada, I think you guys are really miles ahead of us on this issue. Americans don’t like to be told what to do. They really view this as “This is something I want to eat. It’s my right to eat it.” We have a long ways to go. I think we’re making progress. I really think, as I tell people, the progress in this country is going to start with the children. It’s not going to start with the adults. We have to get to the kids and the kids are going to go home and say to mom and dad, “Look, my friend has a peanut allergy. I don’t want you sending a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with me to school.” I really think that’s where that change is going to come from.
But even last year in my daughter’s classroom – she goes to a small private school, everybody knows about her allergies. They’re very sensitive. But even her classroom teachers were bringing nuts into the classroom. So she finally said something to the school nurse, and the school nurse had to talk to the teaching staff. They’d forgotten about it. It was like they didn’t register. We do have a long way to go in this country I think.
Katherine: All right. You said you had your daughter in 2004, so that would make her about nine years old now.
Amy: Yeah, almost nine.
Katherine: And as a mom, you’re always looking out for her. But as she gets older, how do you educate your daughter to look after herself? Because as she goes into her teen years, you can’t always be with her. Does she carry, say, EpiPen around? Or – I don’t know you call them in the states, but the adrenaline pens? How have you educated her about her allergies?
Amy: Most of the children I’ve met who have serious life-threatening food allergies tend to be mature for their years. They have to grow up quicker, I think, because of their health issues they’re dealing with. Elise [sp], that’s my daughter, she has a fanny pack that she carries around, with her Benadryl, her EpiPen and her inhaler. She’s got it with her at all times. But I will tell you – and I’m going to make a plug here, hopefully that’s okay. There is a new EpiPen on the market, and it’s called Auvi-Q and it’s A-U-V-I hyphen Q. It stands for Audio-Visual Cues. It is another EpiPen alternative. It is a great device.
I think it’s going to be very liberating for a lot of people, because what it does – first of all, it’s smaller than the EpiPen, It can fit in your pocket, which is great, especially for boys who have allergies. The biggest challenge with EpiPen is how do you carry the thing around with you? This device was developed by two brothers, both of whom have life-threatening food allergies. They spent 15 years developing this product. It’s been approved. It’s been very well received here in this country.
My daughter, when I was showing this to her, she said, “Mom, this is fabulous.” Because she said, “If you ever get to the point where you need to run an errand and you need to leave me at home alone, this device is going to talk me through how to use it.” So what it is – it really talks you through. There is a voice that comes on, and step-by-step guides you on how to use it. When I told the founder of Auvi-Q that story, he was so thrilled, because it really means more independence for youngsters like that.
As they age, they have to take on more of that responsibility, and she is not shy – she is comfortable telling people, “Hey, that’s not okay. That could make me really sick.” I think that’s what you really have to instil in your children – that they need to speak up. They need to not be shy about their allergies, because it ultimately could lead to some really tragic consequence if not.
Katherine: Exactly. Yeah, really great advice there. Thank you so much for your time today. For listeners, if you would like to know more, please go to allergysafetravel.com. Thanks for your time, Amy.
Amy: It was a pleasure. Thanks so much.