Peanut Allergy Basics: Stuff that Everyone Should Know

No, it's not just a peanut! Peanut Allergy Basics Everyone Should Know

Although we opted out of public and private school for our kid in order to steer clear of peanut butter sandwiches and peanut-laden cupcakes, we still have to be vigilant for the allergen in our every day lives.

At the grocery store, for example, we have to read every package–even for products that we routinely purchase. A different factory, a different production line–one with nuts on it–and we could be in trouble. We must decline most baked and handmade items–including cakes and cupcakes at birthday parties, which is a difficult thing for a youngster to do–lest we end up in the ER. We carry an Epi-Pen with us wherever we go, and we only leave our child alone with adults who have either administered a shot themselves before or who are willing to read and watch information on how to give an injection properly. (The pen packages come with instructions and a “practice” pen.)

Even with all these precautions there are no guarantees that we won’t have a horrible, deadly reaction to a “hidden” peanut.

You see, while folks “think” they understand peanut allergies because of news reports, very few people realize that:

• Peanuts are responsible for more deaths due to anaphylaxis than any other food allergen. (WebMD)

• Anaphylaxis may be one of the most painful ways in which to die. Basically, you suffocate to death. “In some cases, anaphylaxis may initially present with only mild symptoms, such as hives and itching, but it can quickly progress to a deadly reaction. Blood pressure can drop severely, leading to loss of consciousness. Swelling of the throat and airways can cause difficulty breathing, speaking, and swallowing.” (WebMD)

• There is no sure-fire way to protect one’s self or one’s peanut allergic child save to steer clear of any foods that may have even come in contact with a peanut or peanut residue during preparation (“cross-contamination“). For many young children, this kind of avoidance can lead to a painful sense of social isolation when they routinely have to say “no, thank you” to the kinds of goodies ordinary kids indulge in daily. Not surprisingly, there have been instances of outright bullying of peanut-allergic children.

Yet the really sticky part is dealing with well-meaning people who think that in abstaining from peanuts we’re just being a “little cautious” or “nervous Nellies” and so they routinely still introduce peanut-laden products into our environment. Or they lay a platter of cookies on a table and say airily, “Oh, just so you know…  your kid probably shouldn’t eat these. They’re made with peanut butter.”

Hear me out: while a friendly warning is appreciated, as a parent of a peanut allergic child with a serious sweet tooth I appreciate even more the good friends and family members who graciously edit the nuts out of their lives for the few precious hours each week or every holiday that we’re together.

• Lots of rant-prone online folks like to cry “But the anaphylaxis is only possible if you ingest a nut!” (It actually takes only a nut fragment.) This sort of statement typically comes from people who feel school rules that eliminate nuts from the facility are “oppressive” or an intrusion on their “Constitutional rights.” While it’s true that touching a nut isn’t as bad as swallowing it, it’s also true that a reaction is a reaction. Why risk making someone physically uncomfortable?

Moreover, because a true anaphylactic reaction can begin with hives, there’s no way a parent or other adult–even a medical professional–can be certain when a reaction begins from where the problem originates. Since anaphylaxis is  a matter of life or death, why risk confusion and open the door to any exposure in the first place? At the risk of sounding morbid, I don’t want a peanut allergic kid to die in front of your non-allergic kid because the adult managing the situation waited too long to decide whether or not an Epi-Pen or ER visit is necessary. (If you know someone who is prone to sneaking in peanut items into a peanut-free facility, suggest to them that they give that specific scenario a good think. It’s the single best example of why a peanut-free policy is beneficial to all parties.)

• Most frighteningly of all, peanut allergies can worsen over time. A minor reaction one time may be followed by a hospital visit or even death the next. In fact if you’ve had a visible reaction in the past you are more likely to have a worse reaction in the future. Yes, with the exception of the small amount of children who outgrow the allergy, the problem escalates with repeat exposure. (MayoClinic.com) Personally, I’m routinely amazed at how many peanut-allergic adults do not realize this fact and fail to carry an Epi-Pen to protect themselves.

School is starting around the country this month, and I’m sharing all of this information in hopes that at least one person will leave this page a little more sensitive to the serious problem of peanut allergies. Maybe they’d even share the link through Facebook or Twitter or repin this pin on Pinterest? Golly, I’d love it if just one parent picked up a jar of Sunbutter and used it in their kid’s lunch instead of regular peanut butter. And it’d be great if someone would think to bring a tray of fresh fruit to a birthday event or other special occasion so that the token peanut-allergic kid doesn’t feel the sting of social exclusion. Again.

Explore More:

Snacks for the Peanut Allergic (and Others)

The Priceless Gift of Safety

In Memoriam, Amarria Johnson, Age 7

• I love this post on food allergies because I so agree with her on many points. And it is funny, too.

• How to use an Epi-Pen:


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10 comments

  1. I appreciate your article, and I do understand them. Our son is autistic, and even the tiniest bit of high fructose corn syrup sends him spiralling out of control, unable to function. But he doesn’t die from it, so that’s a bit different. But we, too, have to police everything that goes into him. Luckily he hates the feeling he associates with HFCS and so knows to read labels himself and ask people. But it’s hard on little kids. When there’s a birthday party at school, we try to send his own cupcake with him so he can join in without getting ill.

    However… I would hate to ask the whole school to go without just because of our son. 😦 He buddies up with others who share his issue, and they are very careful about their food (either he brings it from home, or it’s something on the hot menu we’ve previously approved). I admit, this might be because he doesn’t swell up and stop breathing because of it, but… it’s me, I guess.

    Our school has a peanut-free section of the caffeteria, which seems to work quite well. One of the teachers who is also a sufferer of peanut allergies polices the area, and works with the kids to be aware of everything in their food. The few times we’ve sent peanut butter to school (and we do, sometimes) or anything that’s touched peanuts, I label the lunch so that the teachers know to send the kid to the other end of the caf.

    • We wanted to steer clear of the whole public school debate–which is very charged on both sides–and to provide optimal safety. So we homeschool–and we have the financial means to do it. Not everyone does, which is why I’m sharing our story to educate the public.

      If each and every parent was as cautious as you with labeling, then the peanut-free tables would probably work “physically.” But there may be emotional costs to marginalizing children and marking them as “different.” What we adults see as “different,” kids see as “freakish” and this can lead to bullying and social aggression. This is disconcerting because even my homeschooled kid has experienced a sense of social isolation over baked goods.

      There is no great, solid, consistently reliable plan. But if we can get people to understand that peanut allergy is DIFFERENT than other allergies–can lead to death in a school in full view of other children, then we can at least move past the notion that peanut allergy families are being “simply” too pushy and assertive. From there perhaps cooler, calmer and more mature adult conversations can proceed.

      • Yeah, I know where you’re coming from. I just struggle with it. 🙂 Perhaps pinning peanut allergies together with wasp/bee stings might help? Having recently dealt with two “almost death” stings I can say that it’s at least as fun to watch as a peanut allergy sufferer, and I think people are more educated about it as a rule. Since you can never know when a bee will come in, and you can’t make “bee free” tables at school, it might work to help on the education front.

        Our school is good with the segregation thing. They work hard to keep the bullying to a minimum, and succeed wildly. I wish I knew what it was our school does, because I’d pass it along to other schools!

        The homeschooling thing is something we *could* do but have chosen not to (although we “after school” because sometimes we want the kids to learn more on a subject or different things). Again, though, we’re lucky in that our school has a gifted and talented program, and both our kids are in it. Not only do they do the regular school work, but they do special classes where they get a bit more advanced work, up to the point where it’s challenging but without sending them into a tizzy (ie a challenge but not impossible). Their homework is the challenging stuff – they don’t bring home the easy things the regular classroom kids do. And… they are asked to be good stewards and help their classmates out, not in a snotty manner (that behavior results in being removed from the program temporarily) but in a helpful way. Kids who are good at math are invited and encouraged to help other kids who are less good. The teachers find that kids are good at explaining to other kids. 🙂

        Back to the peanut thing, I do think people pishtosh it. It’s not treated seriously. I hope your education efforts go far!

      • I tear up just reading comments like these, about the “peanut-free table” and such. The intentions are great, and we always appreciate anyone who goes out of their way to keep our little ones safe, but what people truly don’t understand is that even more important than the embarrasing, isolating, depressing situation some kids have said they feel that those types of “resolutions” can be, even a third-party contact with peanuts can KILL children like our three year old daughter. She has been rushed to the ER in the past based on someone else who ate peanuts (and also an instance with cow’s milk) and then shared toys with her. Simpy dividing out the children from the group of kids eating PB and J isn’t enough to keep our baby girl safe. The kid who has peanut butter on his hand, or the girl who kisses her on the cheek later (which isn’t uncommon in young children) could send us to the hospital…or worse. Rev Allyson, I do agree that with you in that I never expect people to cater to our specific needs. It is my responsibility to keep our daughter safe and educate her on how to keep herself safe in the future. However, with the growing number of allergic children and the severe nature of the reaction to peanuts, I don’t understand how public schools are not required to be peanut free. I mean, to some kids, peanuts are as deadly as a gun. No joke. Pamela, we are also very fortunate in that my husband is a doctor and we are able to keep our children home. However, it IS very isolating for all of us. We can’t go to most social events, we never go to any restaurants, we have a difficult time finding food when traveling (which we don’t do very often as a result)…the list goes on and on. It’s a daily battle to keep our kids safe, unless we stay home, give them only a whole foods diet (which definitely has its benefits- I can guaruntee that my daughter eats much healthier than MOST children), and ask anyone who enters our home to wash their hands/arms and not kiss our kids. Anyway, I appreciate everyone who makes strides to educate people on how serious this issue can be and how many children/families are affected by it. I know that I, personally, never knew about these types of situations until I worked at a private school that was entirely peanut free and partially milk free (in the lower level) due to some children who had allergies. Shortly after my first year teaching there, I became pregnant with what would turn out to be a VERY allergic baby girl. Spreading the word is key!!! Thanks, everyone who does so!!!!!!

  2. Thank you, thank you! I wish I could send these points to the room mothers who rolled their eyes at my son’s “peanut-free” classroom.

  3. I really appreciate RevAllyson’s comment. I completely understand why, as a parent, you have valid concerns for the safety of your children while at school, and while every child has a right to attend school without serious risks to their health, it is NOT right, in my opinion, to ask the majority of parents of children who do NOT have peanut allergies to completely eliminate all peanut products from schools entirely. As a stay-at-home mom, I have a VERY strict budget that I must stick to, and sometimes peanut butter is one of the VERY FEW staples that we can afford to include in our child’s lunch. I’m sorry, but lunch meats, whether bought from the deli or other various store brands are expensive! Peanut butter, however, can be bought a lot less often and stores extremely well because it has a much longer shelf life than most other lunch foods. It’s also one of the very few sandwiches that we can get our kids to eat, and it’s packed with protein, as we all know. I can’t even include jam on one of my kids’ sandwiches, because they just like plain peanut butter. I have a sneaky suspicion that many parents across the country have similar issues as these. You’re probably thinking that she’d be better off eating school lunch, and that it is possible to try to get free school lunches. I’m well aware of this fact, and while it’s helpful to a lot of families out there, my kids come home from school and almost every day they actually thank me that they get to take a lunch from home & are not forced to eat the lunches that their school provides. Let’s face it – school lunch food has VERY little nutritional value, and it all tastes disgusting. I’ve been told that more and more schools out here in Utah are completely banning peanut products from schools and to be honest, that really frustrates me. I certainly hope this doesn’t happen in the school my children go to. There’s a peanut-free zone in our school’s cafeteria, with teachers strictly patrolling that specific area, and honestly, that’s enough. I know it must be really tough to be in the minority, but that’s just the way life is for a child who’s allergic to peanuts. We all have struggles and difficulties, but coddling peanut allergy children by banning peanuts from schools will only go so far. What’s going to happen when they get to the workplace? I highly doubt any employer will ban peanut products from their working environments later on in their lives. I’ll step off my soap box now. I mean no disrespect. Just expressing my own personal opinions.

    • I completely hear your concern re: affordable, nutritious food options. And as someone who has written and blogged and even given a TEDx presentation on food systems [safety AND security], I’m keenly aware of the problems with public school food–including free and reduced lunches. There is no easy answer in all of this, though terming parents as “coddling” a peanut allergic kid who could die from exposure really doesn’t help much. You might want to go back and read the link about Amarria Johnson who died just last year.

      https://redwhiteandgrew.com/2012/01/09/in-memoriam-amarria-johnson-age-7/

      (Her mother left a note in the comments on that post that made me cry.)

      I fully expect that these kids will tote their Epi-Pens into the workplace, fully armed with the maturity and emotional steadiness to demure from the nut-laden goodies when they reach ADULT-hood. Until then, they are minors and deserve to have their health and safety taken into consideration by mature, thoughtful adults fully apprised of the significant risks that peanut allergy brings with it to the school house.

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