Peanut Allergy: A Cautionary Tale

img-Family-Peanut-allergy-victim-had-a-zest-for-livingWe hear it all the time. Rates of serious food allergies in kids are on the rise, causing a boatload of anxiety for parents, teachers, and pretty much anyone who comes in contact with the younger set. Many schools across the country have banned nut products, especially that iconic childhood staple, peanut butter, but not without controversy.

Parents with allergy-free kids and busy teachers with plenty of other things to worry about have been heard grumbling about overreaction by the banners and overprotective parents. Kids with allergies just shouldn’t eat the offending food, they say. Why should the vast numbers of kiddos who love PB&J be deprived for the few? What’s the big deal? Is this just another example of helicopter parenting to the extreme?

I must admit I found myself with the moderates on the topic. Yes, kids with known allergies should be kept safely away from foods that could trigger a reaction, but come on — ban nut products from schools? Isn’t that too much?

And then one day recently,  a dear friend, who’s also a school nurse, told me a story that changed my point of view. Forever.

A 13-year-old in her district was vacationing at a family camp in Northern California. This child was known to have a severe peanut allergy, and had been taught from an early age to never eat anything that might even remotely contain them.

After a camp-out meal, the families brought out treats and desserts for the group to share. Natalie zoomed on some rice krispy treats, and asked an adult if they contained any peanut products. After being assured they didn’t, she bit in. But her wary tongue tasted something suspicious, so she spit out that very first bite and went to find her mom to report it.

Mom gave a dose of Benadryl to head off any possible reaction and watched her carefully.

About 20 minutes later, the child started to show signs of trouble. Her mouth began to tingle. Her throat felt like it was closing up. These are the clear warning signs of anaphylaxis — a severe allergic reaction that can lead to respiratory arrest and death.

Her dad, a doctor, immediately administered an Epi-pen, the antidote the family always carried just in case. When her symptoms didn’t let up he administered another. And another. A massive dose of epinephrine.

But it was no use. That one bite, never swallowed, was too much. Natalie couldn’t be resuscitated, and she died in those mountains near Sacramento. Her parents say the last words she said to them were, “I’m sorry.”

This story shocked me. I wondered if the facts were true. As a pediatrician I had never seen a food allergy that severe. I looked for confirmation, and found that this was exactly what happened. I ached for these parents, and for all the parents whose children suffer from such severe allergies that they live one bite away from disaster.

This mom is telling her story to as many parents, teachers, and child health advocates as she can, so that those who think we’ve exaggerated the hype around food allergies will understand. So that no child will die whispering, “I’m sorry,” after a dose of  Benadryl and three Epi-pens.

Read the CBS News version here, and then tell your friends.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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