Allergists 101: Finding The Right Fit For Your Food Allergy Team
When it comes to life with food allergies, I am passionate about so many things. But, on the very top of the list is the importance of finding the right allergist to walk with you through your food allergy journey. It's so interesting because when I talk with other food allergy parents, a majority of them have either not been to an allergist at all because don't think it's necessary, or they have had a bad experience with one that has totally turned them off, confused them, or sent them into an unnecessary state of anxiety. I want to talk about why it's so crucial to find a solid allergist, who you need to be looking for, and what you can expect when you walk in the door.
Why Do I Need An Allergist?
I've said this before, and it bears repeating: our pediatricians are amazing, invaluable resources, but they they are gatekeepers. They lead us in the right direction. But, we can not expect them to be "experts" in every single facet of medicine. Cardiologists know the heart inside and out, but I'm not going to visit one if I having issues with migraine headaches; that's when I visit a neurologist who lives and breaths all things brain-related. The same goes for our general practioners versus specialists. If you have any kind of chronic issue that you must live with and manage on a daily basis - and a food allergy is exactly that - you need a rock solid specialist on your team. You need an allergist.
Who Do I Need To Look For?
I speak from experience - not every doctor makes for a perfect fit. We were with a practice for almost two years before my second son was diagnosed with his multiple food allergies and we made a switch. We have been with our current allergist for almost seven years now, and I tell people all of the time that finding our current doctor was an absolute game-changer for us.
Here are some things that make all the difference when looking for the right doctor:
Your allergist should give advice based on science, research and facts. I can't stress the importance of this enough. I recently heard a story from a food allergy mom about her extremely confusing experience with two different allergists who have her contradictory recommendations about when to administer epinephrine in the case of an allergic reaction. One said to give the epi the minute she save a hive on her child's face; the other said to wait to administer only if her child was having trouble breathing. Neither of these guidelines is rooted in science, and this type of contradiction will only cause extreme confusion in the case of an emergency. Your allergist's advice shouldn't be arbitrary. (See click here for a PDF that Food Allergy Research Education (FARE) put together regarding the proper steps for administering epinephrine.)
If at all possible, make sure you choose a pediatric allergist. Most fields of medicine are comprised of practitioners who work solely with children. You wouldn't hesitate to choose a pediatric surgeon, ophthalmologist, dentist, or psychologist over someone who didn't specialize, would you? The same should go for your allergist. While not as easy to come by as pediatric specialists in other disciplines, pediatric allergists are out there and they know our kids best. Due the nature of food allergies, treatment options (especially up and coming therapies) differ depending on the age of the patient. And the types of issues kids face, emotionally and psychologically, are also unique to their age group. Please take this into consideration when looking for the right fit.
Make sure your allergist has a passion for food allergies. If I had to narrow it down to the one thing that made the difference between my previous allergist and the one we are with now, it would be this: our current allergist is absolutely passionate about kids with food allergies. I'll never forget how I felt after our first visit with him when, after testing my younger son, he handed me business cards for both a pediatric nutritionist and food allergy support group. In that moment, I felt for the first time that someone was not only looking out for my child, but me as a mom and our family as a whole. This meant everything to us, and it's the level of care that you should be looking for, too.
Don't forget the nuances that set a doctor apart: bedside manner and a willingness to listen and explain. Quite simply, your doctor should be very good with your kids. Allergy testing can be a scary process for children, and allergic reactions are terrifying. Your allergist should walk your child through these moments in a loving and age-appropriate way, just as he or she does with you. It is also crucial that your allergist listens and takes the time to truly explain, in layman's terms, what's going on with your child. Food allergies are complicated, and for those of us who didn't go to medical school, we need the right person to walk us through the science of it all.
Find a doctor who is a calming force on your family's journey. You should never underestimate the importance of calm in an doctor. Our previous allergist was a bit of an alarmist, which only made me more anxious about my boys' allergies; a calming force can make all the difference during those moments when fear inevitably takes over.
What Kinds of Things Should I Expect From An Allergist?
Your allergist should perform both skin and blood tests on your child. From there, he or she should clearly interrupt those results for you, explaining exactly what they mean both now and as your child grows.
Your allergist should help you create a food allergy action plan for school and home. He or she should help you understand the signs of an allergic reaction and the proper steps for treatment. These recommendations should be clear and based on research and science.
You and your allergist should come up with a testing schedule that works for your family in order to monitor the progress of your child's allergies and his or her potential for outgrowing them.
Your allergist should have a clear understanding of food allergy research. There are so many promising therapies on the horizon, and your doctor should have a very good handle on what's coming down the pipe and how your child might one day benefit.
Where Do I Find a Good Allergist?
Of course, your pediatrician is a great resource, but be sure to ask for his or her recommendation not simply based on location. Discuss your personal criteria for an allergist and get your pediatrician's referral based on feedback that they've heard from their patients. You can also turn to friends who have positive experience with allergists themselves; these types of personal references are invaluable.
Another fantastic resource is the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). This organization can help you locate allergists in your area via their website at www.allergist.aaaai.org/find/
Best of luck on finding this crucial member of your food allergy team!