Today I want to share with you our experience of having a child with a severe food allergy – everything from how we discovered it, getting help and the safeguards we’ve put into place to make sure we are prepared should a reaction occur again.
I can remember the first time IT happened. Truth is – I’m sure most parents won’t ever forget when they witness their child’s first severe allergic reaction. It’s traumatizing – for both the child having the reaction and the helpless parent and loved ones witnessing it. One thing’s for sure is that witnessing one allergic reaction is more than enough to ensure that you will do everything in your power to make sure it never happens again – and if it does, that you are prepared to tackle it.
One summer afternoon on a very normal day, I was home alone with all three kids and it was snack time. My older daughter had been asking for a while to try kiwi as she had seen some of her friends in school have it and she was curious what it tasted like. Not being a big fan of kiwi myself (it always made my tongue feel itchy after I ate it), it wasn’t something I would really buy. But because it had been so long since we had had it, I decided that week to pick up some at the grocery store and give it a try. I cut some up, put on a plate with a few other little snacks and handed them to the two older kids, Leah and Gabe, who were four and three years old at the time.
Within minutes, Gabe’s eyes started filling with tears, his face turned beet red and he has coughing. His whole body became agitated and he hopped off his chair and ran to the garbage can to spit out whatever kiwi he could.
The whole situation felt like it was in slow motion and lasted for hours, but in reality, it was likely all over in less than five minutes.
As his little head hung over the garbage can, he started gasping for air. His face and lips were swelling and he was screaming for help. I can remember it was one of those moments where the sheer shock of what was happening almost froze me in my stance, but knowing I was the only parent home, I had to push past my own fear and do whatever I could to try and intervene.
I scooped him up in my arms, pressed his body up by the kitchen sink and started hitting his back. I thought he was choking. I remember even making a hook with my index finger and trying to sweep in his mouth and throat to see if his airway was blocked. I didn’t realize in that moment that he was having a severe allergic reaction.
He eventually vomited and that seemed to bring his body immediate relief. We would later learn that the fact that he vomited was actually something that may have saved his life. More on that later.
Like I said, all in all, the whole scene lasted maybe five minutes tops. Once Gabe calmed down, I sat with him, hugging him and crying. The adrenaline had calmed and I just couldn’t hold the tears in anymore. I was SO scared that I was about to lose him. While the whole episode lasted only a short amount of time, it was long enough that I can remember having the very real thought of “OH MY GOODNESS, this CAN’T be happening right now! Am I about to lose my kid?”
Once we all calmed down, I started processing what had actually happened. It didn’t take me long to remember two years prior what had happened when I gave Gabe some kiwi for the very first time. It had felt so insignificant at the time that I think I had completely forgotten about it. But now that I was piecing this puzzle together, it all made sense.
When we were introducing new foods to Gabe around one year old, we did give him some kiwi to try. While he didn’t have anywhere near the reaction he had this time around, I do remember his lips swelling a little bit. I can remember mentioning it to Chris and asking him if Gabe’s lips looked puffy – which he wasn’t sure if they actually were and so we went on with our life. I never bought kiwi again, because like I said previously, while I don’t have adverse reactions to it, it does always make my tongue a little itchy. So I’ve just avoided it. And I think I had just completely forgotten about those little swollen lips of his from his actual first exposure.
When I finally realized that this was in fact a severe allergic reaction he was having, I called our family doctor right away to see what we could do. Having never dealt with severe food allergies before, I wasn’t sure what could be done, if anything, other than avoidance.
Within a few weeks, we had Gabe in to see an allergist. He was tested for a number of typical allergens as well as various foods, including kiwi. If you aren’t familiar with allergy tests, this skin prick test is done on the inside of your forearms. They take small drops of up to 50 different substances and place them on the skin. Then they make a small prick with a needle into the skin, so that those substances are absorbed. The patient then sits there for 10 minutes to see if the skin has any topical reaction to that substance.
For Gabe, within SECONDS of the kiwi sample being on his arm, a large hive-like bump appeared and it just kept getting bigger and bigger. In fact, by the time the test was done, it was the largest bump on his arm. It was so severe that the allergist immediately told us that he, in fact, has an anaphylactic allergy to kiwi and would need to always have an emergency treatment close at hand.
I can remember sitting there feeling so relieved to know what was going on but also so overwhelmed with what she was saying. Words like anaphylaxis and EpiPen had never been part of my vocabulary up until that moment and I knew I had some learning to do in order to help protect my son.
We immediately got my son a number of EpiPen Jr. auto-injectors. EpiPen is an emergency treatment for anaphylaxis/severed allergic reactions that helps to decrease the body’s allergic reaction until medical help arrives or you can get to the hospital. I learned that it is important to have a number of them just to make sure you always have one around should disaster strike. Since then, we’ve always kept them around our home: one in the kitchen, one in my office, one in my purse and one upstairs in the bathroom because you just never know where a severe allergy reaction can happen. And we never leave the house without one.
One super important thing I’ve learned about severe food reactions is that EVERY SECOND COUNTS after exposure. As I mentioned, we got lucky when Gabe had his reaction because he threw up almost immediately and got the kiwi out of his body. The allergist told us that that likely could have been the difference between life and death for him. Had we had the EpiPen, I would have administered it as soon as I recognized the signs of a severe allergic reaction. I’ve never been so thankful for a kid throwing up as I was in that situation.
So let’s talk about how severe allergies affect our population, signs/triggers and importance of educating not only yourself but those around you.
Did you know according to Food Allergy Canada that more than 3 million Canadians have self-reported having at least one food allergy.1 And, almost 500,000 of them are children under the age of 18 years old have food allergies.2 Also, did you know that people who have had a severe allergic reaction are at risk for future reactions? Even if your first reaction is mild, future reactions might be more severe.3 This is exactly what happened in my son’s case – those baby lips that swelled a little that we didn’t think much of – that was his first reaction to kiwi. We should have sought an allergist at that point but we simply didn’t know or recognize the reaction or know the possibility for such a severe reaction later on.
So, what are common triggers for severe allergic reactions? Food is one of the biggest triggers and because it’s such a broad area, it’s hard to know exactly what could cause the reaction. But some of the most common foods that can trigger allergic reactions include peanuts, tree nuts (there are many nuts that fall under the tree nut category including almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, etc.), milk, eggs, sesame seeds, fish and shellfish. Fruits that can trigger allergic reactions include apples, bananas, cherries, kiwi, melon, peaches, and others. Other things that can trigger severe, anaphylactic reactions in someone’s body include insect bites/stings, medication, latex, and others.
When it comes to identifying the signs that someone is having a severe allergic reaction, it can be sometimes tricky to recognize, especially if they’ve never had a reaction before. While not exhaustive, some of the signs to look for include hives, rash, wheezing, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.
If you suspect that your or your child might have a severe allergy, I would strongly encourage you to speak with your doctor as soon as possible. Having witnessed my son have such a strong reaction like that – I would never want someone else to have to experience that with their own child. Even if you think you might be overreacting to get yourself or your child tested by an allergist, I would always rather err on the side of caution. Because you never know, if you do test positive for an allergen, you could be prescribed an EpiPen to have on hand should something ever occur.
The final piece I want to touch on with this is not only education when it comes to understanding the allergy, but also knowing how to use the EpiPen auto-injector and educating those around you.
I think it’s really important for me to stress here that you need to always be vigilant when it comes to severe allergies, especially food allergies. You must be reading food labels and not just once – but often because manufacturers are known to change up their production process and/or ingredients at any time. So even if you know a certain product is safe, it’s good to read the label every time you buy it to be sure.
Also, it’s important to be extremely careful when you are ordering food at a restaurant or even accepting homemade foods from a family or friend. We almost had a horrible experience recently when we decided to order Indian food at a new local restaurant for a family night and decided to get butter chicken. Butter chicken is something we often eat at home and Gabe is totally fine eating it. But after I put in my order, I just had this nagging feeling in my gut that told me to call back and double check about the ingredients in the butter chicken. Sure enough they told us that they use cashews in their butter chicken – another food that Gabe has a severe reaction to. We immediately canceled our order. Can you imagine had I not double checked? Actually, I don’t want to imagine!
I want to add here that it’s also important to check your or your child’s allergies throughout the years. Just because they are or are not allergic to something one year, doesn’t mean that will be the same the next. Gabe has been for three skin allergy tests over the last six years. Some things he’s grown out of and others have been added to the list of things he can’t have. So it’s important to have it checked every few years.
When it comes to using an EpiPen, I’ll be honest that initially, the idea of using it on my son freaked me out. However, the allergist gave us a training device (also available at EpiPen.ca) to learn exactly how to use an injector. “Blue to the sky, orange to the thigh!” I don’t think I’ll ever forget that saying, neither will my son. We still have the training device on hand and take it out to practice every once in a while. It’s good to be comfortable with knowing how to use it so that should we ever be in the situation again, we will feel confident in using the EpiPen.
This is a good time to mention that EpiPen’s do have an expiry date. You can actually register your EpiPen on their website to be set up for reminders of when the injector will expiry in order to purchase new ones. It’s critical that you don’t let them expire and make sure not only your home but also the schools have current ones in case of emergency.
Finally, it’s so important that those who you interact with are well versed in not only your or your child’s allergies, but also are prepared to potentially have to use the EpiPen in case of an emergency. When Gabe goes to any playdate, he always brings his EpiPen with him and I make sure that his friends parents know all of his allergies. I actually usually just send him with the snacks to make sure there’s no possibility of accidental exposure. When it comes to his class at school, there is a note posted outside of his class that there are certain allergies present in a child/children in the class. They also send home a letter at the start of each year letting parents know not to send anything with peanuts, tree nuts or kiwi with their kids lunches. There was a scenario last year where a child brought kiwi to my son’s class. Gabe knew to ask the teacher to remove the kiwi from the class (he ended up sending the child to the office to eat their kiwi), wiped down the surface and another reminder letter was sent to all the families in the class to please not bring kiwi to school. The school also has two EpiPen devices for Gabe – one that is kept in his class and the other in the school office for a back-up.
Phew! That’s A LOT of information and if you are still with me this far, I know it’s because you know someone or are someone who is affected by severe allergies. Early diagnosis and education can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. It’s never too early to get tested, it’s never an inconvenience to ask someone to not eat certain foods around you and it’s never an overreaction to make sure you are properly equipped with an emergency treatment like EpiPen.
Thank you for listening to our story. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. While I’m not a medical professional, I am a devoted mother who has gone to great lengths to make sure her kid is never in the situation he was once in and if that does ever happen again, we are prepared and have confidence in the treatment.
Love & Blessings,
Note: This product may not be right for you. Always read and follow the label. Epinephrine auto-injectors are indicated for the emergency treatment of anaphylaxis. EpiPen is emergency treatment that does not replace seeing a doctor or going to the hospital.
This post is sponsored by Pfizer. All thoughts, opinions and stories are 100% my own, lived experiences and I thank Pfizer for giving me the opportunity to share this story and their product with you.