MADISON (WKOW) -- Fifth-grader Alexcia Johnson is the picture of health, but everyday she battles a potentially life-threatening condition. Johnson is severely allergic to nuts, one wrong meal, one careless bite could sent her to the hospital.
"I get all puffed up and I can't breathe and my lungs close up," she explained. "It gets harder and harder to breathe."
"It's like a roulette wheel," her mother, Tara Johnson added. A wheel of worry, the family is all to familiar with.
"At first, it's like wow this is life changing, you have to start reading labels," Johnson said. "We'd go through our pantry, that was the first thing we started with, then as we go on we realize it's everywhere she goes."
Alexcia is part of a growing legion of children with food allergies. A study from the Centers for Disease Control, shows food allergies among children have doubled since the late 1990's. Now an estimated four to six percent of children have one. Peanut, tree nut, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish are the most common. Some can be outgrown, like a milk or egg allergy, but others will be life long.
"I honestly never though I would be seeing as many, especially young patients with food allergy as I do today," Dr. Mark Moss, an allergist with UW Health said.
Doctors say part of the jump may be increased awareness and reporting of allergies, but awareness alone can't explain a spike this size.
"It's something that is likely environmental, but we really don't know exactly what that is," Moss said. Moss says one thought is the so-called Hygiene Hypothesis, the idea that our suburban environment has become to sterile, that we're missing exposure to certain germs and parasites that can prevent allergies.
"For example, when people grew up on farms children didn't have many allergies," Moss added.
Researchers are working on it, but answers remain elusive. All families can do is prepare. Johnson says that's especially critical at school.
"You're not there, you can't look at labels, you can't hover over her," she explained. "Lunchrooms, potlucks, organizations she goes to like sports, where people bring snacks in, sporting events like UW events where they have peanuts on the ground."
For children like Alexcia, the problem isn't just eating a nut, it's having any kind of contact at all. Just touching a nut or sesame seed could trigger a reaction. Schools recognize that risk and are making changes, posting allergy alert notices, offering a table for allergy kids at lunch, or even in some cases going nut free. They're also training students to be their own advocate, to communicate.
"The younger kids are the most vulnerable population in the school district, so the state, the health office and the teachers spend a lot of time up front creating an environment that prevents exposure," Alison Potter, a school nurse with the McFarland School District said.
Still, kids move from classroom to classroom and accidents happen. Also, many life-threatening allergies aren't diagnosed until after an attack.
"This is where our EpiPens are kept, in the locked file cabinets," Potter explained, showing a carefully labeled system with a prescription and instructions for each individual student. Wisconsin schools aren't required to stock life-saving epinephrine for undiagnosed allergies right now, but many, like McFarland do. Potter says McFarland has a number of donated stock epipens.
A federal law that took effect last month encourages states to make stocking epinephrine mandatory, by tying funding for asthma grants to the drugs availability.
Meanwhile, Alexcia is doing what she can to get the word out. "I'm trying to make people more aware of nut allergies and careful," she said. Her Girl Scout project is an educational campaign, posters and talks encouraging things like hand washing after lunch. The effort is designed to show you don't have to be afraid of an allergy, but with numbers increasing, those with and without one must be aware.
"Nut allergies are a very big deal, you could die from it," Johnson said.
Wisconsin lawmakers are working to fine tune rules regarding epinephrine use in schools right now. The options for epinephrine auto-injectors are also changing. Now, in addition to the popular EpiPen, a device called the Auvi-Q has been approved. It audibly talks users through the process of injection, aiding people in emergencies who may be unsure of how to use the device.
Researchers are also looking into desensitization, or the exposure to an allergen in small amounts over time, in the hope the likelihood of a reaction will be reduced. However, this is not a common medical practice right now, or recommended because it is difficult to know which patients will benefit from the process. Doctors say desensitization may be part of the future of allergy care, but researchers need to find a way to better identify the people it is appropriate for. Currently, it is too dangerous.
Click here for the CDC's food allergy action plan.