My five-year-old son has been telling us since he was three years old that he was allergic to peanuts. He hated the smell, and he couldn’t tolerate being in the same vicinity of anyone eating a peanut butter sandwich. Because he is starting kindergarten this year, we decided to get him tested so we would be certain whether it was just a strong dislike or an actual allergy.
Sure enough, the blood work came back showing a high level of IgE, the antibody for peanuts. Then, three weeks later we were hit with the devastating news that a family friend’s teenage daughter (with a known peanut allergy) died after tasting a Rice Krispie treat that contained peanut butter. The teen and her parents did everything they were supposed to, but it wasn’t enough. She knew after a bite that the treat had peanuts, and told her mom, who administered Benadryl. Then her surgeon father used four EpiPens to try to save her. The cause of death was severe laryngeal edema, a swelling in the throat.
When you hear news like this you can’t help but be overwhelmed by sadness from the death of a young girl with so much life ahead. It made me immediately hug each of my own children a little tighter. And as you can imagine, this tragedy really hit home because we were still adjusting to the news of our own son’s allergy. Unfortunately, there is no way to change the outcome for this family, but we can honor the young girl’s memory by being aware of just how serious food allergies can be.
FOOD ALLERGIES ON THE RISE
Researchers acknowledge food allergies are on the rise with no solid answers as to why. According to a recent report in May 2013 from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of U.S. children who have food allergies rose by 50 percent from 1997 to 2011. Peanut allergies in particular have tripled between 1997 and 2008, according to a study published three years ago. Almost all food allergies result from exposure to eight kinds of foods: eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, shellfish, and fish. Reactions can vary in severity from mild skin hives to anaphylactic shock, which can lead to death. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, more than 200,000 emergency room visits each year are a result of food allergies.
BE AWARE AND BE PREPARED
The point here is not to scare — death from a food allergy is limited to less than 200 people a year; however, with this new knowledge, this is a new era. If you have a child with an allergy, parents, grandparents, teachers, and caregivers also need to know. The best way for that is with a simple phrase we have now instituted in our family: “always ask, always tell.” Always ask is a good mantra for children with allergies to make sure that before they take food to always ask what’s in it, especially baked goods, which can be the trickiest. It also means if you have a child over for a playdate or drive a sports carpool after school and offer a snack, always ask if anyone has an allergy. Always tell means that as parents it is our responsibility to inform other parents who supervise our child about the allergy.
Another part of being aware is to always be prepared. Just as you would never leave home without diapers and wipes for a baby, parents who have a child with a food allergy must never leave home without Benadryl and an EpiPen. These items should also be available at places where the child spends a majority of time — school, home, and even a relative’s home.
In addition, a physician friend makes an excellent point: It is not good enough just to have these items available — the people around the child most need to know how and when to use them, so if that becomes necessary, no one panics and everyone knows exactly what to do. We decided to have a family meeting with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and our regular babysitter to give them the facts about our son’s allergy and to take turns practicing with an EpiPen (the prescription comes with a practice pen without a needle).
Most important for any family dealing with a food allergy is that their child always feels safe whether at home, school, or with a friend or relative. Many schools have decided to go nut free to avoid any risk of a child having a reaction. I have also found in talking to other families dealing with food allergies that it is easiest when the whole house is completely free of the allergen. For our family, knowing there is nothing in the house that could cause a problem brings all of us greater peace of mind.
This experience has been a transition for our family — one that now requires planning ahead, reading labels, and paying extra attention, especially at big events or activities where food may not be as well monitored as at home. We are still adjusting and still learning so that as parents we can be as educated, aware, and as prepared as possible.