Sunday, January 10, 2010

Food for Thought

About a month ago I was harshly reminded of the fragility of life. My family had just finished eating dinner one night when suddenly, out of the blue, my 8-year-old son started to cry. He began to complain that his mouth was burning. When I looked at him I quickly realized that he was having an allergic reaction to something. His face and tongue rapidly began to swell and he was becoming hysterical. We whisked him into the car and raced to St. Clair Hospital. By the time we got there about 7 minutes later he was literally unrecognizable and was having trouble speaking and breathing. They took one look at him and rushed him into a room. They quickly gave him a shot of adrenaline and hooked him up to an IV full of steroids and antihistamines. They saved my son’s life. Needless to say, I am beyond grateful for their efforts and for modern medicine. While at the hospital we hashed through all of the possible culprits. There were only two – penicillin which he had started on that day for an ear infection (a drug he has taken many times), and BRAZIL NUTS. It was around Thanksgiving when this happened and I had just purchased mixed nuts in the shell. My older son had been eating them at dinner and offered my little one a Brazil nut. He was skeptical and only took the tiniest sliver (he describes it as a crumb) to try. No one in my family has ever had an allergic reaction to any food, including nuts. I had assumed that by now we were “in the clear” since no allergies had appeared in the past. Lo and behold we came to find out that he has a severe allergy to Brazil nuts. He was tested for all tree nuts and peanuts, and he is only allergic that one. However, I have come to find out that because he has an allergy to one, he is much more likely to spontaneously develop allergies to the others! Who knew!?!? Because of this and the risk of cross-contamination he is now banned from eating ANY nuts – peanuts and tree nuts. Needless to say, this has all been quite shocking and terrifying. Obviously, I have a much greater appreciation and sensitivity for people with food allergies now. Granted, I had always thought of myself as someone who was very sensitive to the needs of people with food allergies. For example, like most moms, I always ask if a child has allergies when he or she comes over to our house for a play date. Obviously, I would never offer a child allergic to peanuts a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or a cookie that contained nuts. HOWEVER, in the past I would have very likely offered them a plain homemade chocolate chip cookie, or perhaps some jelly beans. Clearly neither of those contains nuts! But guess what!?!? 99.9% of typical brand name chocolate chips are manufactured in facilities that process peanuts and tree nuts! The same goes for jelly beans! I was shocked when I read the label on a box of Jelly Belly brand jelly beans! Made in a facility that processes nuts! Wow! This might not seem like a big deal to some people, but knowing what a “crumb” of a Brazil nut did to my son has changed my attitude dramatically. I realize now that a similar “crumb” could fairly easily find its way into a batch of melted chocolate or jelly bean goo.
The reason I have chosen to share my story is so that I can hopefully bring a greater understanding and appreciation to people about this very serious issue without them going through the horror that I went through. Here are just a few facts that everyone should keep in mind when dealing with potential allergies:
• Nuts (both peanuts and tree nuts) can be found in many foods that are not “obvious” culprits
• Always read labels to see if products contain nuts or are processed in facilities with nuts or other allergens present. (Keep in mind, some people are allergic to milk, eggs, wheat, etc.)
• Be sensitive to the real dangers that children with food allergies face. Some severely allergic children can go into anaphylaxis shock simply by inhaling the scent of nuts from another person’s breath!
• People who are allergic to a specific type of nut should strictly avoid ALL nuts due to the risk factors described above.
• If you do experience an allergy emergency, call 9-1-1 immediately. Severe reactions can be not only life-threatening, but they can escalate very quickly. Every second really counts.
• Be aware that anyone (adult or child) can develop an allergy to something at any time. For example, anyone who has enjoyed peanut butter for years can spontaneously develop and allergy to it at any age. Previous exposure to a food is actually NECESSARY in order to develop an allergy to it. Exposure does not necessarily mean ingesting the food. It can simply be touching or smelling the food.
• People with mild food allergies can develop more severe reactions at any time. Often times a second exposure to an allergen will cause a much greater reaction. It is the body’s way of saying “no!”

As parents, we all strive to keep our children safe. Allergy awareness is yet another way to accomplish that. Luckily there are life-saving ways to counteract severe allergic reactions. However, the best way to deal with allergies is by strict avoidance of known allergens. Believe me when I say that no parent or child should ever have to endure what we experienced on that fateful evening in November. I urge everyone to strive to keep not only their children safe but ALL children safe.

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