Does Anyone In Your Party Have Allergies?
This question is a fairly new and fairly common question these days; it seems to be asked at almost all restaurants and even theme parks. When filling out our annual back-to-school questions, it is asked there. Allergies, particularly food allergies, seem to have taken a front row in the realm of things you have to worry about as a parent. Not only your child but virtually every child you come into contact with. Gone are the days of sending treats for the classroom for birthdays. Even when hosting a sleepover for my kids, I double and triple check with parents to find out if there are any allergies I should know about. Even with the prevalence of food allergies (or intolerances even), there still seem to be the eye roll reaction when you have to inquire about ingredients in a restaurant. My response to those reactions is, just be thankful you haven’t had to worry about allergies yet.
What Causes Allergic Reactions?
Our body’s job is to protect us from harmful invaders like viruses and bacteria, but sometimes the body will have an immune response to something that shouldn’t cause us harm, like food or things in the environment like grasses or pet dander. When something is identified by our immune system as a threat, it creates antibodies against that threat, when the threat is presented to us repeatedly, those antibodies are sent out to the cells, and histamines and other chemicals that cause the allergic reaction are released. Once the release of these chemicals happens our bodies react, it can react as minimal as mild discomfort to hives to the closing of the airway. For visually-minded people like me, imagine a glass and you add a 1/4 cup of liquid to that glass and you do it over and over again, eventually, that glass will overflow; this is how most allergic reactions come to be, it may not be the first or second time you are exposed to the allergen that you have the reaction, but if your body has labeled it as a threat, it will eventually cause some sort of reaction.
Signs of an anaphylactic reaction usually happen within minutes of the exposure, however, in rare cases it can be hours. Symptoms of anaphylaxis are, however not all will necessarily occur during a reaction:
- Skin reactions, including hives and itching, and flushed or pale skin
- Low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Constriction of the airways and a swollen tongue or throat, which can cause wheezing and trouble breathing
- A weak and rapid pulse
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Dizziness or fainting
Our Journey With Allergies
One of the first sentences I taught my daughter to say was “Is there egg in it?” when offered food from someone. Of course, as a toddler, I had to translate this to most people, which put me in perpetual fear that someone wouldn’t understand her, and she would eat something containing egg and have an anaphylactic reaction. As a precaution, anytime we were somewhere that she could be unintentionally offered something to eat, I had her wear a bracelet that read “EGG ALLERGY” in big bold letters, although she has always been very good about asking me before eating something she was offered. My in-laws would tease me about her allergy, thinking I was making it out to be bigger than it was, even disregarding my requests not to use certain cookware and utensils for anything but her food.
We discovered her egg allergy at 7 months old. About a month before she was diagnosed, we were on a family vacation to Hawaii and my dad was giving her little pieces of pancake. She got a rash on her face and we assumed it was the acidity of the pineapple she had with the pancakes. A month after that, my husband and I were at brunch and she stuck her hand in his plate of eggs and then touched her face and it immediately swelled up. We gave her some Benadryl and the swelling went away, and I booked an appointment with the allergist the following week. Our allergist told us that typically testing isn’t done on babies under a year old but because of her health history: chronic eczema, frequent respiratory infections, and reactive airway (she was even a part of a study at Seattle Children’s called Wheezy Baby Study), and now the reaction to just touching eggs, she needed to be tested.
The testing was a skin scratch test. The study uses a control and then suspected/common allergens all placed on the skin with a tiny needle. After the scratches are done, you wait 20-40 minutes to see if a reaction occurs. If you develop a wheal (welt/hive) to the allergen, it is measured and determined to be positive or negative.
My daughter’s test was immediately positive. It reacted so strongly the nurse gave Benadryl right away, and we had to wait an hour before we left to ensure a secondary reaction didn’t happen. No egg products or derivatives were allowed for her until she was 9 years old, then she was given the green light to try baked goods containing eggs. It was 3 years later before she was officially cleared from an egg allergy, and her first request was a corn dog. She still has a severe allergy to sulfa drugs, environmental/seasonal allergies, and some fruits and vegetables that cause mild symptoms.
My second, began having bloody stool at 2 weeks old, and I knew that it was probably a milk allergy. Our pediatrician agreed, so I went dairy-free for the first year of his life while I was breastfeeding. At one year, I was given the okay to start with adding baked products with dairy and slowly introduce things like cheese into my diet. He did fine with me eating dairy. He was allergy tested at a year old and tested positive for both eggs and milk; he eventually tested negative at 5 years old.
We’d been diligent about food and ingredients for years, and just when we were beginning to relax and put food allergies on the back burner, out of the blue my youngest had a true anaphylactic reaction.
We were watching the Saints game, and my best friend was visiting from Portland. We had a bunch of game-day snacks and drinks. Since it was a crisp December afternoon, the kids were outside playing. My youngest came running in the house in tears, yelling he was itchy and began to develop red blotches and hives all over his body. He told me that he and the other kids had made a huge leaf pile and were taking turns jumping in. I assumed he had jumped in an ant pile, so I stripped him down and put him in a tub of cool water. I gave him well beyond his recommended dose of Benadryl, but the redness was getting worse and we hadn’t seen any ants on his clothes. My friend and husband went outside to look where the kids were playing. No one else had any sort of reaction or distress. Within a few minutes, my son began to clear his throat and complained it was itchy and tight. When I tell you the feeling of panic that set in was like nothing I had ever felt before. I told my daughter to get the EpiPen, but as she yelled she couldn’t find it. I realized that in our recent move and having been essentially cleared from needing one, it must have been tossed when it expired. I remembered that a neighbor I had just met before Halloween had been telling me about her daughter’s allergy to milk. I ran to her house on the next cul-de-sac over, knocked on the door, and when she answered, all I said was “EpiPen, please.” I swear out of thin air she produced it, and I ran back home, scooped my son out of the tub and told him to look away. And just like I had practiced with them for years, jabbed the EpiPen into his thigh. I then yelled to my husband to get the car, and we went to the ER.
When we arrived, we were taken back immediately and the team got to work doing an assessment and taking his vitals. They gave him an IV, more Benadryl, and more epinephrine. He fell asleep, but a couple of hours into the visit, the hives began to come back. This is called a biphasic, and it can occur an hour up to 72 hours following the initial anaphylactic reaction. Because of this, my son was admitted overnight for more treatment and observation.
I am so thankful that when my son had his reaction, we knew what to do. I am thankful beyond words that my neighbor handed over an EpiPen without a second thought, and thankful for the entire staff at the hospital that made sure he was safe and made a very scary experience not so scary. He said the hospital was even better than a hotel, ha!
EpiPens Now and Forever
There is a fear that lives deep inside me, especially as my kids are becoming teenagers and just a few years away from leaving home, knowing that I won’t be there if / when an anaphylactic reaction occurs again. I hope that, through their experiences, they are left with the skills to take action if they (or a friend) need help, that they always have Benadryl and an EpiPen with them. I know why EpiPens are not sold over the counter, but I wish they were. They should absolutely be a part of everyone’s first aid kit, because usually when an anaphylactic reaction happens, it is when you’re unprepared for it.
The journey of being a parent to a child with allergies can seem overwhelming. It can be disheartening at times, and above all things, it can be really scary. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, there seem to be more and more of us on this journey, which means there are a lot of resources and support for newly diagnosed kids and parents to help them navigate through the world of allergies.