Friday, July 27, 2012

Living With A Peanut and Tree Nut Allergy

This has been such a busy week prepping for the big birthday party for my in-laws this weekend.  I am happy we decided to host.  It has definitely given us an extra push to get some more decorating done around the house and to put things away!  I am quite exhausted, though, and am praying to hit the sack early tonight to rest up for the big festivities.  The fun begins tomorrow!

Despite our busy week, we still had some outside commitments we had to work in.  Today our oldest son had an appointment with an allergist.  We had gone to the same practice since he was just one, so change is always a little nerve-wracking.  I was hoping for a miracle that he had somehow outgrown his allergies, but that definitely was not the case.  Our poor little guy reacts so quickly and violently to the peanut antigen when they put it on his skin that it always frightens me.  I see what it does on the outside and fear what would happen again on the inside if he were to accidentally ingest a peanut again.  

Let's back it up a bit.  When our son was a few months shy of two, we hosted a family Halloween party at our home.  We were enjoying a nice dinner with our friends when our son took a peanut butter M&M off of my husband's plate and popped it into his mouth.  He had not had any exposure to peanuts at that point, as it was recommended to not give it to your child until they were two.  None of the kids had.  One mom commented, "Well, I guess we'll see what happens!"

It wasn't five minutes later and he began to cough and threw up all over my husband.  Our guests exited the party quickly and we immediately called the doctor.  They suggested we head to the ER.  We tried to clean him off a bit and with that he began to vomit uncontrollably.  We immediately called 911.  Keep in mind, this was all from ONE peanut butter M&M.  I can't imagine what it would have been like with a larger amount ingested!  It was a very scary evening for us all and it changed our lives.

For some reason, the topic of peanut allergies can be very sensitive and controversial for some.  It can be met with very negative and almost hostile reactions from people who have children that are not allergic.  This post is intended to shed some light on this very important topic for those of you who don't have first-hand experience with this issue.  I've spent a lot of time explaining to our friends and family members about the danger he faces if he's accidentally given a nut.  All have been very receptive and shocked to learn how much is involved in keeping your child safe.  

The worst part of having a child who has been diagnosed with a peanut allergy is the constant fear that they will ingest something containing a peanut allergen.  Well, that seems easy, right?  Teach your kid to avoid peanuts, peanut butter, and goodies that contain peanuts as an ingredient.  Wrong.  When your child has a severe allergy to peanuts (and in our case tree nuts as well), you have to avoid any item that may have been made in a facility that also uses nuts.  If you check a food label it may say one of the following:  contains peanuts/tree nuts, may contain peanuts/tree nuts, or made in a facility that also processes peanuts/tree nuts.  You have to constantly check products that you may have found to be "safe" in the past, as sometimes their lines change and they are no longer okay for your child to consume.  

Things that you may not even consider to be unsafe may be.  For example, Wal-Mart's Great Value brand is one of the worst at cross-contaminating.  One may think cheese would be just fine!  Wrong.  Saltine crackers?  Wrong.  It's a very extensive list of unsafe items.  Going grocery shopping no longer means taking your list and throwing items in the cart.  You now have to check every label to make sure that what you're bringing home to feed your child is "safe" for them to eat.  Bakeries are a thing of the past as are most baked goods at the grocery store.  It can be a challenge.  Eating out at restaurants also feels like navigating your way through a mine-field.  We have a few safe go-to restaurants, but for the most part we eat at home.  

Aside from the obvious risk of food, everyday experiences that you take for granted are no longer easy.  We attend story time at our local library and at the end of the session they provide a snack for the kids.  Unfortunately, it is animals crackers that are not safe for him to have.  School is a scary time.  You are no longer there to make sure that everything is okay.  Sure parents are asked to only bring in peanut-free snacks or treats, but each holiday I've had to pull out candy that was not safe for him to eat.  

Playdates are a natural part of growing up, but they become nerve-wracking for us and the parents of his friends.  Luckily we have been blessed with parents more than willing to welcome him into their home.  When we drop him off, though, we have to give a quick lesson on how to use an Epipen and hand over the bag of all of the information they would need should they need to call 911.  Birthday parties should be fun, right?  "Sorry, son, you can't have the cake, but I brought you your own cupcake from home!"      

 One year we bought season passes to Six Flags thinking it would be so much fun to take the kids there for a few hours on the weekends to burn off some energy.  We set off for our first day all excited and it quickly turned to panic as nuts were sold all over the park and we had to worry about the residue being on the rides where his hands touched.  What if he put his hands in his mouth?  He was only 3!  We love to go to baseball games at Wrigley Field and other major league ballparks.  We now take the time to wipe all of the seats down, wash hands frequently, and hope that the neighboring spectators choose a snack other than peanuts.

Taking a family vacation is fun, but a lot of anxiety finds it's way into the suitcase as well.  Airplanes are the worst.  Regardless of whether or not peanuts are served on your flight, someone before you may have had some.  The fold-down trays are the only place to put anything on to occupy your kids and keep their tummies full.  One of my greatest fears is being in the air and having him react.  This concern became very real on a flight that served peanuts and he began to cough and clear his throat.  How quickly can they land that plane?  I have been on discussion boards for a few major airlines where people get infuriated when "allergy parents" suggest banning peanuts on planes.  It very often goes something like this, "Why should I not be able to have my peanuts because YOUR child is allergic.  Who do you think you are to make the rest of us suffer on a flight?"  

Really, that statement is a walk in the park.  People get really fired up about this topic.  I often suggest putting yourself in someone else's shoes.  How would you feel if it was your child that could potentially die because the person next to you HAD to have peanuts in order to make it through a flight.  There are plenty of other snacks out there people.  I'm sure you don't sit around and regularly snack on peanuts.  If you do, perhaps you could survive a few hours without them.  Is it really worth risking someone's life miles above the ground over some silly peanuts?  Unfortunately, peanut residue can be airborne and those with the most severe allergies can have a reaction from someone simply opening a package of peanuts.   

I could continue to give you examples, but I'm sure you are starting to see that this is no walk in the park.  Having a child with a peanut allergy means doing all you can to make sure that your child is safe from a common little nut that is life-threatening.  We always have an Epipen and Benadryl with us, but it's still a very scary problem.

As a mother, I naturally feel very protective of my son.  When he was diagnosed with this allergy, I was devastated.  I knew that this would change his life and and it made me very sad.  It seemed like some of the innocence of childhood was gone.  We had to be so protective and teach him that he could not just eat anything he wanted without asking first.  At first he couldn't understand why he couldn't have what other were having.  Unfortunately, it put fear into him, but on the bright side he has become very cautious about accepting any food from someone other than us.  He asks everyone, "Are there peanuts in that?"    

Christmas was our first holiday that we really had to deal with this and of course homemade cookies are everywhere that time of year.  I made several kinds of "safe" cookies myself and took a tin whenever we went to a party.  We were so concerned that he would grab a bite of something that year since he was so young, but we made it through unscathed!  Our families were great at helping out and keeping the nuts out of their baked goods that year.

One thing that really bothered me was the fact that kids with a peanut allergy can be isolated.  Like I mentioned before, playdates are stressful for both sets of parents.  Going over to someone's house to play is one of the highlights of a child's life.  I always fear that he will not be invited over to other people's homes or be excluded from birthday parties because of his allergy.  This issue also concerns me as he heads off to school.  He will be starting kindergarten this year and will be "the kid with the peanut allergy."  I pray that he doesn't get made fun of and singled out because of it.  You may think that sounds silly, but it happens to my niece all of the time.  It's often helpful if there's another child in the class with the allergy, too, because they feel an instant bond because they realize they are not alone.

I could really talk about this forever.  I'm very passionate about it and do all that I can to make sure that our son doesn't feel like he's getting the short end of the stick because of his allergy.  Each year for his birthday I make him a homemade cake for the theme that he has chosen.  He gets some input and has been thrilled with all of them to date.  I bake him plenty of fun treats to take along to parties where I know the desserts will not be safe.  I educate parents who have questions and want to learn more about his allergy so that they will feel comfortable inviting him into their homes.  I volunteer in the classroom as a party coordinator to help make sure the snacks, projects, and treat sacks are "safe."  I do my best to make his childhood as normal as possible.  

I guess my advice to you if a peanut allergy does not directly impact your life, is to be compassionate and understand that we, as parents, are only trying to do what's best for our kiddos.  We are doing our best to protect them from harm and advocate for their well-being.  I know that it can be an inconvenience to some, especially those with kids in school, but please consider that by creating a peanut-free environment in the schools, our kids can avoid a potential deadly reaction.  Don't you think a child's life is worth it?

My Little Peanut Allergy Guy


  1. My gosh Gina, I knew peanut allergies were serious, but I had NO idea they were so severe. I can't imagine what that fear and anxiety would feel like. Kudos to you for doing your best to help educate the other parents in your little guy's life.

  2. Gina- I know you are worried about your little guy going to school and coming across something with peanuts and you should be. However,as a teacher that has dealt with peanut allergy kids, I can assure you we are just as terrified and protective as you are (if that's possible =)). I call parents all the time to make sure the child can have a treat, even if I have read the label and the child tells me it is a treat he has at home. It doesn't matter. I call. It's a good idea to have a list of treats or send a little container of treats he can have so if the teacher is unsure and can't call he can just choose something else from his treat basket. It will help your state of mind!