KOKOMO, Ind. — Seven years ago, Megan Hunter dipped her finger in peanut butter and let her 7-month-old son lick a little of it off.
She thought Clinton was coming down with the flu later when he got hives all over, started vomiting and had trouble breathing.
She took him to the doctor and found out he had a severe peanut allergy. That diagnosis was scary and overwhelming for the young mother. And the allergy still scares her and her son.
"I became a mother at the young age of 17, and I've dealt with a lot in the past seven years," Hunter told the Kokomo Tribune (http://bit.ly/1mw8RXW ). "We've had a few scares here and there, and many not so good conversations with family and school."
The now-7-year-old Clinton does not suffer alone, though.
About 5 percent of children experience food allergies , the most common being wheat, egg, milk, soy and peanuts, said Dr. Damir Metesic, who runs the Indiana Institute of Immunology in Kokomo.
Those numbers are increasing annually.
Food allergies seem to have doubled in recent decades, Metesic said.
"It's not fully understood why this is so," he said.
The most common hypothesis is the "hygiene hypothesis," he said. People theorize that extremely clean conditions in the United States and overuse of antibiotics could be leading to more allergies.
The good news is that kids will outgrow many food allergies, especially allergies to eggs and soy, Metesic said.
Ten-year-old Joshua Smith is among the unlucky few, though, who never outgrew his allergy to eggs. His mom said 90 percent of children outgrow egg allergies by the age of four. But one bite of a cookie or piece of cake made with eggs will send Joshua into anaphylactic shock.
Joshua is also highly allergic to peanuts — an allergy very few people ever outgrow, Metesic said.
Joshua's mom, Julie Smith, said she remembers the first time he ingested peanuts. He was about a year old, and his grandmother was pushing him in a stroller.
He started fussing and his grandma gave him a cookie made with peanuts. He didn't eat it. He just licked it a little. But that was enough to cause a severe reaction within minutes.
"When he sneezed in my arms, I kid you not, it was one steady stream of snot all the way to the floor," she said. "His next breath sounded like a wheeze. His eyes swelled shut in front of me."
The family is very careful now. Joshua hasn't had a reaction in three years. He and his mom constantly worry about the possibility, though.
Joshua doesn't like eating at friends' houses when he stays overnight. And he's sometimes scared to try new foods.
He opened his Burger King bag once and froze. His French fries looked different. They were the new, healthier fries, his mom said. He wasn't sure if they were safe.
His allergies even cause him anxiety, which sometimes triggers his asthma. He hates that one wrong food could force him to take a shot and call an ambulance.
"I have nightmares about it for some reason," Joshua said. "I dream I eat something I'm not supposed to and they rush me to the emergency room."
Julie Smith worries most when the family does something new. She just booked the family's first flight. They're headed to Arizona.
What happens if someone eats peanuts when they're flying?
She booked the earliest flight she could because she read that airlines clean the planes overnight. But the airline she chose (her options were slim) doesn't guarantee peanut-free flights.
"When I think about it, I get sick to my stomach," she said. "I'm so scared."
She also worries about her little boy growing up.
What happens when he's a teen and starts dating? Will he remember to take an epinephrine pen on his date in case he goes into anaphylactic shock? That could happen if he kisses a girl who ate something with peanuts in it.
Someday, maybe even soon, there could be a cure for those worries.
Some doctors are pioneering new treatment programs, including oral desensitization where they introduce small amounts of the allergen to patients, Metesic said.
An experimental therapy in England that fed children with peanut allergies small amounts of peanut flour has helped more than 80 percent of them safely eat a handful of the nuts, The Associated Press reported last month.
Doctors at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge started by giving 99 children ages seven to 16 who had severe peanut allergies a tiny 2-milligram dose of a special peanut flour mixed into their food. Slowly they increased that amount to 800 milligrams. The dose increases were given at a research facility where the children were observed for any dangerous side effects — the most frequent were itchiness in the mouth, stomach pains or nausea, The Associated Press reported.
After six months of treatment, more than 80 percent of the children can now safely eat five peanuts at a time.
The intention of the treatment isn't to help kids eat large amounts of peanuts, but to prevent a life-threatening allergic reaction in case they accidentally eat trace amounts.
A treatment like that could change a lot of kids' lives, including Clinton's. Right now, his allergy affects just about everything he does.
"If I were to eat peanuts and kiss him, he would have a reaction," his mother said.
He eats his lunches in the office at Bon Air Elementary School with one or two friends. The school offered him his own table in the corner of the lunch room, but his mom was worried about the children nearby. They might unknowingly bring foods with peanuts in them.
Representatives with Kokomo School Corp. say their goal is to always integrate students as much as possible.
Nurses there work directly with parents once the school officials receive a medical consideration notation. The nurse then notifies the cafeteria supervisor.
According to Jack Lazar, food service director for the district, once the food service staff is notified, the computer software is updated so that when the student's lunch card is scanned, it shows an alert to allergies.
"All school personnel, teachers, principals, aides (as well as parents), understand the situation because we do not want any child left out of an activity," Lazar said. "At the elementary level, when students' birthdays, or such, are celebrated, we allow the parent to bring an alternate snack. We invite the parents to be part of the solution. ... At Kokomo Schools, we try to create the solutions behind the scenes so the student can blend naturally with his or her peers."
Hunter trained Clinton to take extra precautions, though. She taught him not to drink from the school's water fountains, for example, because she once spotted kids touching their lips to the mouthpiece. If they ate peanuts or peanut butter, that could cause a reaction.
Some days she wishes she just didn't have to send him to school. She tried that, though.
"We homeschooled him for a little while," Hunter said. "That didn't work out. He woke up crying and said he missed his friends."
Instead, his mom lets him go to school and constantly worries.
The dangers are everywhere.
Clinton was always safe at Walmart until the store brought in a big bin of peanuts over Christmas. He had to leave as soon as he saw it.
Hunter can't take her son to certain areas of the zoo. She wouldn't let him go to a sporting event with his cousins because the venue sells peanuts.
They've even stopped going to many of their family functions because it became too stressful. Hunter said the family would try to make peanut-free dishes but wouldn't read food labels carefully enough.
Clinton doesn't like his allergy and the limitations it creates for him.
"He says it's not fair," Hunter said.
She tries to make his life as normal as possible, she said. It's getting easier in some ways.
Clinton loves Kit Kats but can't have a normal Kit Kat bar. Hunter found a website, though, that sells peanut-free versions of popular candies.
They're made at special factories in Canada, she said. The candies are more expensive but worth it in the end.
Santa filled Clinton's stocking with those special candies. It may have been his favorite Christmas gift of all, Hunter said.
The gift that Hunter and Smith are seeking, though, is public awareness.
The moms say they would never ask people to stop eating peanuts altogether. They just want people to know what their lives are like.
They would like everyone to understand just how dangerous allergies are. More and more people every day are learning about food allergies as the number of kids living with them increases, Smith said.
Still, there are those who don't believe it's serious. Smith said she had to take her son out of preschool years ago because his teacher refused to believe he couldn't touch anything with peanuts in it.
"The older generation doesn't get it," she said. "This was unheard of years ago, so they think it's exaggerated."
Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Kokomo Tribune.