GRIFFITH | Rather than nourish her small body, food threatens Charlee Prutsman’s life.
The 2½-year-old is allergic to eggs and egg whites, peanuts, wheat, soy, dairy products and citrus.
“If my daughter is near peanuts, she could go into anaphylaxis shock,” Sheila Prutsman said.
That potentially life-threatening allergic reaction is one people can experience from foods or other allergens such as the venom from a bee or wasp sting.
An allergic reaction to food can affect skin, the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract, and, in the most serious cases, the cardiovascular system, according to Food Allergy Research and Education. The nonprofit organization works to advocate for the 15 million Americans with food allergies, as well as to fund research to address the situation.
Anaphylaxis is a “potentially deadly disease (that) affects 1 in 13 children in the United States — or roughly two in every classroom,” the website foodallergy.org states.
To increase knowledge of food allergies as a public health issue, FARE is sponsoring National Food Allergy Awareness Week through Saturday.
Sheila Prutsman is a member of FARE and participates in a number of events to fund research with the Charlee’s Angels group of family and friends.
The Prutsman family’s journey began when Charlee was 18 months old during a visit to a steakhouse where peanuts are served.
“She stopped breathing,” Sheila Prutsman said. “Luckily, she threw up and started to breathe again.”
Today, Sheila and David Prutsman’s lives revolve around reading food labels, diligently regulating Charlee’s diet and keeping her away from even the smell of some foods and spices.
“Charlee eats fresh fruit, protein such as turkey, gluten-free potatoes and gluten-free snacks,” Sheila Prutsman said. “It’s whole way of life.”
The family also has to have an epi-pen handy in case their daughter is exposed to an allergen.
The epi-pen contains epinephrine — an adrenaline — and must be used promptly during anaphylaxis to be most effective, the FARE website states.
The advent of epi-pens has helped save many lives, said Dr. Kenneth W. Blumenthal, of Allergy Asthma Care P.C. with offices in Crown Point, Portage and Valparaiso.
However, food allergies also are on the rise, Blumenthal said.
“There are a lot of theories about why we’re seeing an increase, but there is no answer yet,” he said.
Peanuts, fish and shellfish, sunflower seeds, milk, eggs and spices such as oregano are the most common food allergies, Blumenthal said. Exposure to even a small amount of a peanut or peanut oil used in a host of beauty products can trigger an allergic reaction, he said.
“Thirty percent of those who are allergic to peanuts, which are legumes, are also allergic to tree nuts such as hazelnuts and cashews,” Blumenthal said. “Avoidance is the best treatment.”
The increase in food allergies, especially among children, presents challenges for school districts.
Amber Wixson, the Chartwell Corp. director of dining for the Griffith Public Schools, said the district has seen an uptick in the number of children with food allergies. Most of the food allergies of students in first through 12th grades are to wheat, dairy, peanuts, soy and red dye No. 2.
Parents provide information to a school district about their children’s food allergies along with physicians’ reports, Wixson said. That information is kept by the school nurse and entered into a food service computer program that pops up a warning at the cafeteria checkout line if what is on the child’s tray is on the allergy list.
The food service staff carefully analyzes what is used in food preparation, she said.
“We read labels all the time. Most people don’t know that barbecue sauce has wheat in it,” Wixson said.
“We get gluten-free pizza crusts for our children with wheat allergies. We don’t want our little ones to feel left out,” she said. “We’ll be ready for Charlee when she comes to school.”