When Ruth Kieran took her sons to the park with a friend, she didn’t expect to end up in A&E a few hours later, with one of her kids dangerously ill. What started with an innocent offer of a packaged fruit snack kicked off a severe reaction in her son James, who is allergic to peanuts.
The danger of allergies
James’ allergic response was immediate and frightening. ‘His lips swelled up very badly and he looked very disfigured,’ remembers Ruth. ‘We went straight to hospital. On the way his face was becoming more and more grotesque. I kept saying to him “can you breathe alright?”.’
At the hospital James’ symptoms worsened. ‘We had a crash team in the room and half a dozen nurses administering steroids and antihistamines, as well as two Epipens. He was on oxygen and he just wasn’t responding to the medicine. I had faith in the hospital and that he was going to get better, but then the nurse said to me you better call your husband in, because your son is really poorly. The inference I got from that was that it was serious and he might not make it.’
Ruth was carried through the ordeal by adrenaline. ‘I didn’t lose it until afterwards. At the time I was so focussed on keeping James calm and keeping the oxygen mask on him. His skin started off being a puce colour, and then his hands and feet turned almost black. His circulation was just shutting down. It couldn’t get much worse.’
James has previously suffered secondary reactions to peanuts as well, coming a few hours later after exposure, prolonging his suffering and worry for his family.
There is always a first time
For parents of kids with allergies, there will always be the first exposure and discovery of the allergy.
Steve Griffiths found out his son Finn was allergic to eggs by accident when Finn ate a small bite of a meringue at age 1. ‘Within seconds of swallowing it Finn was covered in purple hives from head to toe, and screaming inconsolably,’ he says. ‘Luckily we lived round the corner from the doctor’s surgery and my wife whisked Finn around there immediately. The doctor came to the desk straight away and gave Finn antihistamine syrup, which calmed things down. Ever since then we’ve had to consider his egg allergy every day, on every packet. He is also allergic to milk which we discovered after a dreadful patch of him wheezing and struggling as a baby.’
Ruth found that James reacted to peanuts for the first time aged 7 months, as soon as peanut butter touched his lip. ‘He had hives come up all around his mouth, and we rushed him to A&E,’ says Ruth. However, the next time James accidentally had a food containing peanuts he had this time ingested a small amount, while enjoying cake at a relative’s house. ‘It made him really sick- repeated vomiting,’ Ruth says.
Anxiety and stress
Being a parent of a child with food allergies can be anxiety-inducing and life-limiting. ‘We are used to checking packets now on everything Finn eats, but eating out is incredibly hard,’ says Steve. ‘We only know of two places he can eat in, where we know of a few things on the menu that will work. He can never have cake at friend’s birthdays, and it was very hard for him when he was little as he just wanted to try Easter eggs and chocolate like the other children, and would often find himself left out.
‘Holidays are also a struggle. We worry about taking him abroad and being able to find enough that he can eat, and be rest assured that we are definitely avoiding his allergy foods.’
‘A peanut allergy could be fatal,’ says Ruth, ‘so I really find it hard when James is out of my touching distance. I also feel that his life is limited by it. Foods can be cooked in peanut oil- like chips- and people may not be aware, we have had to ask.’
The importance of correct food labelling
Recent tragic news stories have highlighted the need for parents to be vigilant about the ingredients in foods their child may eat, and for companies to be accurate in their labelling. Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, a 15 year old, died in 2016 after eating a baguette from an airport that didn’t show sesame as being one of the ingredients.
This resulted in Natasha’s Law, which requires all pre-packed foods must list the full ingredient and allergens in every product.
Why are allergies on the rise?
It’s thought that more children suffer with allergies than ever before because of:
- an increase in airborne pollens
- climate changes affecting pollen levels
- improved hygiene resulting in less infections, resulting in the immune system turning on things that would otherwise be harmless
- dietary changes.
However, these are currently theories.
Food allergy symptoms
Symptoms of food allergies can vary, but a reaction may induce the following symptoms:
- swelling of the lips, face and eyes
- coughing, wheezing or hoarseness
- noisy breathing
- sneezing or an itchy nose
- feeling sick or vomiting
- stomach pain
Symptoms can show up immediately or days later.
Allergies are different from food intolerances, which cause milder symptoms of bloating and stomach pain.
Call 999 if your child shows any of the following signs:
- skin rash
- wheezing or tightness of the chest or throat
- trouble breathing or talking
- facial swelling or swelling of the mouth area.
What are the most common allergy foods?
The most common food allergies are:
- cow’s milk
- peanuts and tree nuts
- soy beans
if you suspect your child may have an allergy you should contact your GP, unless they are suffering an allergic reaction, in which case you should call 999 or 111 if symptoms are mild.
For more information on allergies, the NHS website offers detailed information.