A mother from Texas has taken to Facebook to educate other parents about what food allergy reactions really look like. A mild reaction to cashews quickly turned into a frightening experience for Julie Ferrier Berghaus, as her daughter went into anaphylaxis at a controlled allergy testing.
Berghaus took her three-year-old, Maren, to an allergist for an oral challenge to tree nuts, to confirm whether she was allergic. The doctor had only given Maren a tenth of a cashew when she started to react.
Berghaus said she had expected to see her daughter choking and grabbing at her chest and neck area. She also assumed the entire ordeal would be obvious and dramatic, but instead it manifested rather silently and quickly. “It looked nothing like I expected it to look,” the concerned mom wrote in a Facebook post that has since gone viral. “I hope I can educate some people on what anaphylaxis could look like, so they don’t wait to give an epi.” (Epinephrine is the medication given to stop an allergic reaction. In Canada, the brand name is EpiPen.)
First, Maren’s ears started getting itchy. Then she got a bellyache and began to itch all over. At this point, the doctors administered a shot of epinephrine. But she still seemed fine to her mom—she was still playing, and she didn’t have more severe symptoms like vomiting or laboured breathing.
Your guide to life after a food allergy diagnosisFrom there, however, the reaction quickly escalated. Maren’s body broke out in hives. The allergist gave her a shot prednisone, but five minutes later, Maren started coughing. When a nurse listened to her chest she found that the preschooler was having difficulty breathing. It was then that Maren blacked out. Doctors promptly gave her another shot of epinephrine as well as albuterol and a steroid. Maren had to be monitored for several hours after, but in the end she was OK.
Vy Kim, a paediatric allergist at SickKids hospital in Toronto, says the symptoms of anaphylaxis are unpredictable. While many kids get hives as a first sign of a reaction, not all do. Other possible symptoms are swelling (of the lips, tongue and throat), stomach complaints and vomiting, and difficulty breathing.
“At the beginning of a food allergy reaction we don’t have good ways of predicting whether this will be a severe reaction, like anaphylaxis, or a milder reaction,” says Kim, who recommends parents administer epinephrine right away if they suspect their child is having a reaction.
“We do know unfortunately that anaphylaxis can happen pretty quickly,” she says. “If the epinephrine is given earlier we end up with better outcomes, compared to a delay in giving epinephrine.”
For parents who are hesitant to give epinephrine (it’s administered by injection) Kim says she often tells them it’s not as scary as it seems. “I think it would be really important to have everyone kind of understand how serious food allergies and anaphylaxis can be,” she said. “And what using and carrying around the epinephrine autoinjector can do to help improve their outcomes.”