DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended as a substitute for medical professional help, advice, diagnosis or treatment. Call 911 for all emergencies. The author, Susan Fink, does not have a medical background and has provided this post for informational purposes only.
As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, we didn't have Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team or No Nuts Mom Group like we do today. I didn't know anyone else who had my lethal allergy. I feel lucky to have survived my childhood. Here are some of my personal tips on how I survived childhood with my severe peanut allergy. I hope this list, based on my 30 years of living with food and peanut allergies, will help your child defend themselves and survive.
- You are not weird. You are unique. There are times your child will feel insecure and isolated because of their food allergy. Remind them that they are unique and it is ok to need extra care.
- Be aware of your environment and don't make assumptions. One time a friend offered to share her Ritz cracker snacks with me and I assumed it was filled with cheese. After chomping down on a piece and nearly swallowing it, I realized it was filled with peanut butter! That same day, another friend innocently offered me a peanut butter lollipop! Talk to your child about which food to avoid, how their allergies are triggered, and what to expect if an allergic reaction occurs. Teach your child how to be conscious about all food they will be eating. Even well-meaning friends can accidentally give you the food you're most allergic to.
- Make others around you aware that their food is putting your life at risk. I've found that if I explain my life-threatening allergies to other people around me, they are nice enough to wait and eat their peanut snack at a later time. Try to explain to them that airborne peanut dust and spreading peanut particles on surfaces will compromise your child's breathing. Most people are compassionate enough to save their food for later. This explanation should be conveyed to family, friends, and caregivers, too.
- Make travel preparations. Before reserving a flight, make sure to plan ahead and ask about the airline’s policy. Check if the airline has an alternate snack that they can serve instead of peanuts. Most airlines are aware of peanut allergies and can suspend serving peanuts for the flight if requested early. If you must fly on a plane where peanuts were previously served, minimize touching all surfaces and immediately wash your hands after the flight.
- Always Speak Up! Don't be bullied. I've been on some flights where I didn't realize the entire plane was already being served peanuts! Sometimes I had to ask the flight attendant not to serve peanuts to the rows adjacent to me. This might make for some unhappy passengers but, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Other passengers' peanut cravings are not more important than your child's life.
- Question all food and ingredients. Remember to check food labels and ingredients to recipes and dishes. Ironically, Pad Thai, which is known for being garnished with ground peanuts, is my favorite dish. I might be living on the edge when I order it anyways asking for "Pad thai, no peanuts please. I have a severe peanut allergy." Once the food arrives, I ask again to make sure there are no peanuts. It is important to always ask and proceed carefully. Be careful and be aware of cross-contamination especially when using serving spoons and eating family-style dishes. Sometimes what looks like harmless garlic is actually crushed peanuts. Don't hesitate to ask a first and second time.
- For mild reactions, I use Benadryl, eat candy, and drink sugary drinks. Everyone's food allergy is different so make sure to follow your doctor’s orders. Not all of my food allergy reactions warrant a trip to the ER. Most of the time I have to resort to my home remedies. I always have Benadryl, candy, and sugary drinks if my reaction is mild. For serious reactions with difficulty breathing, always use epinephrine/EpiPen and CALL 911 immediately. Benadryl and antihistamines will not stop anaphylaxis.
- Only try new food cautiously. Sometimes the food you eat doesn't come with a label. When you're traveling there can be language barriers and trying different food in other countries can be tricky. During a vacation, I tried a small piece of jackfruit and quickly went into anaphylactic shock. In a matter of 30 seconds, I couldn't breathe and I couldn't swallow. I had eaten canned and cooked jackfruit frequently before and had no idea I was deathly allergic to the fresh kind! I ended up going to the emergency room. Luckily for me, we were in the city near a hospital and not in the rural parts of the country at the time. Be extra cautious of what you eat when you're away from a hospital or in places where there are no emergency medical services. Remember that your food allergy can show up in food you've already eaten before.
- Wear Peanut Allergy Jewelry. There are lots of allergy alert jewelry styles available. Jewelry, bracelets, and charms are a way to remind you and everyone of your serious allergy. In an emergency, especially when you cannot speak or breathe, wearing or having your alert jewelry can inform the paramedics of your severe food allergy.
- Have an emergency plan! Always, always, ALWAYS have EpiPen with you at all times. I have had 2 trips to the ER for anaphylactic shock. I was 15 when I first started carrying an EpiPen. Teach your child to never leave home without it and to always know where it is located. Keep track of expiration dates and replacing your EpiPen when needed. You, your child, and family members should practice how to use EpiPen with the provided training injector and know when to use it. Always call 911 and get immediate medical professional care after using EpiPen. Know where the nearest hospital is at all times and have an emergency plan.