Three Ways Food Allergies Are Like Hearing Loss

By Kevin Liebe, AuD

When my two year old daughter was diagnosed with a peanut allergy last summer, it came as quite a surprise. Considering that our family is very careful about what we eat and what we feed our children (and no family history of food allergies), we were left wondering how and why this could have happened.

Not a Random Diagnosis

From Skippy® to...Sun Butter? Yeah, it's about as close as you can get.
From peanut butter to…Sun Butter? Yup. Hey, it’s really not that bad!

Despite some claims by talking heads on TV that parents today are just a bunch of hypochondriacs who are “creating” these supposed allergy problems, I can tell you from my own experience that we certainly didn’t go to our doctor seeking this diagnosis or immediately jump to conclusions or take up the latest fad diet. Several things were ruled out until we ultimately came to the point when our pediatrician referred us to the allergist, who then confirmed that indeed my daughter was allergic to peanuts.

Although we didn’t have any solid answers to why this may have happened, we realized very quickly that this diagnosis meant much more than simply removing our jars of Skippy® from the pantry.

The Only Thing Certain in Life is Change…

Removing peanuts, and foods with peanut derivatives, from our diet had an immediate effect and improved many of my daughter’s symptoms. Unfortunately, it also caused a lifestyle adjustment for the entire family practically overnight.

Thoroughly examining labels on every single food item you purchase is a serious pain–though, unfortunately, a very necessary one. Even so, the possibility of cross-contamination can occur with items that aren’t labeled.

Initially after the diagnosis you think to yourself, “What’s the big deal? A life without peanut butter and jelly sandwiches isn’t the worst thing in the world.” True, that isn’t a big deal. The part that is a big deal is when they explain the process of anaphylaxis{{1}}[[1]]Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can occur within seconds or minutes of exposure to something you’re allergic to, such as a peanut or the venom from a bee sting. [[1]]and how you might need to “administer” an Epi-Pen into your child in the event of an allergic reaction to save their life. Not such a fun thought, but a critical piece of knowledge any parent with a child suffering from food allergies must have.

Administer is actually a euphemism used by medical personnel to describe the process of jamming the needle of an Epi-Pen firmly into the thigh of your child–maybe not quite like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, but certainly a disturbing thought to any parent!

Hearing Loss and Food Allergies

In addition to giving me a new level of respect and appreciation for my wife, having a child with a significant food allergy has given me greater empathy for my patients with hearing loss and their families. Something that previously was a non-issue, or even something enjoyable like going to a restaurant for example, can now be a source of anxiety{{2}}[[2]]Many of my patients with hearing loss can certainly relate to this scenario. Restaurants are definitely one of the most difficult listening environments for people with hearing loss[[2]]and may require planning in advance.

To put it simply: it’s not as easy as it used to be.

While the two conditions may seem clearly at odds with one another, I’ve come to appreciate some surprising parallels between the effects of hearing loss and food allergies on daily life.

1) Your problem is invisible

Which one of these people suffers from hearing loss? ADHD? Severe Food Allergies? Image courtesy IDA
Which one of these people suffers from hearing loss? ADHD? Severe food allergies? Image courtesy

Unless you have large or brightly colored hearing aids (or maybe a cochlear implant), people generally cannot tell you have a hearing loss just by looking at you. Similarly, if you have a significant food allergy, people are pretty oblivious without your telling them directly or experiencing a reaction in front of them.

It’s not to say that people want to advertise their struggles to the public. However, for those with both hearing loss and food allergies, a little empathy and understanding could go a long ways to minimizing daily frustrations.

2) Treatment/management options are usually necessary, but quite often inconvenient

Even though I frequently recommend them to my patients, I realize that hearing aids are not the most convenient thing in the world. Quite frankly, they’re a pain. There’s no getting around the fact that hearing aids require ongoing maintenance and regular checkups by a professional. However, for many, hearing aids are the bridge that helps connect them to the world around them and are therefore worth the hassle.

For those with severe food allergies, “treatment” generally means avoidance of the allergen and being prepared for circumstances when they may have a reaction. Often, this entails a lifetime of carrying around  something like an Epi-Pen at all times. You never know when{{3}}[[3]]For the peanut allergy sufferer, there are actually numerous non-food items that surprisingly may contain peanuts or could contain traces that could result in an allergic reaction, including: pet food, cosmetics, detergent, stuffed animal stuffing, paint, shaving cream, etc.[[3]]you might come into contact with an allergen and have a serious reaction. While this may seem silly, cross contamination is a real problem and can happen with items traditionally viewed as safe.

3) People won’t ever completely GET IT.

Image Courtesy Melanie Bennett
Image Courtesy Melanie Bennett

As much as we wish it were so, the truth is that even close friends and family often don’t fully get it. Until they have first-hand knowledge, it’s difficult for people to comprehend the effects of something like hearing loss or a significant food allergy or, really, any other number of conditions.

Even some of those closest to us who appear to understand on the surface can sometimes do things that are confusing and frustrating–often out of ignorance.

One thing is certain: whether you have hearing loss or food allergies, you have no choice but to continue educating those around you. There really aren’t any other options. While there can be exceptions to every rule, most people are generally happy to accommodate and are frequently more understanding than we give them credit for.

The Important Things

It’s hard sometimes to view things in the proper context when life throws obstacles in our way. However, keeping things in perspective is critical to long-term success. I think the following quote sums it up best:

By approaching my problems with “What might make things a little better?” rather than “What is the solution?” I avoid setting myself up for certain frustration. My experience has shown me that I am not going to solve anything in one stroke; at best I am only going to chip away at it.”
― Hugh PratherI Touch the Earth, the Earth Touches Me

Many of us may never get answers to the how and the why we, or our loved ones, acquire something like hearing loss or any other number of conditions. The truth is that those parts of the equation really aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. In the end, it’s the day to day that really matters.

About HHTM

HHTM's mission is to bridge the knowledge gaps in treating hearing loss by providing timely information and lively insights to anyone who cares about hearing loss. Our contributors and readers are drawn from many sectors of the hearing field, including practitioners, researchers, manufacturers, educators, and, importantly, hearing-impaired consumers and those who love them.