We had no reason to suspect our son would have a peanut allergy. There are no known food allergies in our family. Cerebrally, there was no reason to worry. At the time, the research indicated that it was fine to give peanut butter to children after their first birthday. However, for some reason, I hesitated. We didn’t offer peanut butter for the entire year after he turned one, even though it is a staple in my own diet.
My overactive imagination led me to dab a bit of peanut butter on my son’s arm just shy of his second birthday. A hive appeared almost immediately, red and swollen. Panicked, I called the pediatrician for advice. I told him I had rubbed peanut butter on his arm and a large welt was forming. The doctor practically laughed when he told me, “Peanut butter isn’t typically applied topically. Try not to worry, you can give Benadryl if you must.”
I felt foolish, like a total rookie mom with hypochondria. I dosed him with the antihistamine – better safe than sorry.
How we found out
Fast forward a couple of months to his two-year-old checkup. In the meantime, we avoided all forms of peanuts. I went to that appointment with a secret plan which, looking back, might have been a little crazy. I fed him a small amount of peanut butter in the office parking lot.
Let me explain my logic: if there wasn’t a reaction, no one would know that I had force fed my toddler. Alternately, if he did react, we were in capable hands. With the hospital nearby, I was confident he’d be well taken care of if need be.
In the three minutes between putting the peanut butter in his mouth and checking in at the reception desk, it was clear something was seriously wrong. The first symptom to appear was gagging and coughing. I thought it might be due to the texture of the peanut butter. But while I was checking in at the desk, he vomited all over the waiting room floor.
We were whisked away into an exam room where I sheepishly made my confession.
They quickly stripped him down, revealing small hives all over his body. Several doctors came in the room and agreed that it was an anaphylactic reaction requiring a shot of epinephrine (the active ingredient in an EpiPen) and a shot of Benadryl. Later I learned that an anaphylactic reaction must include reactions in at least two body systems; in his case, gastrointestinal and skin.
After three hours of treatment and observation, we left with a peanut allergy diagnosis, a referral to an allergist, a prescription for an EpiPen, and a world turned upside down.
What life is like now
We’re in a new routine of constant monitoring, reading every single food label, carrying Epi-Pens, and always asking about ingredients. We are vigilant about what he eats. Holidays like Halloween are a challenge, eating out is tough, and sharing food is practically impossible. Birthday parties are full of treats that “may contain peanut products” or “have been produced in a factory containing peanuts.” Early on we learned to bring our own treat to birthday parties because we couldn’t be sure the cake would be allergen free.
He’s in first grade now and I trust him to ask before eating anything. I’m also learning to trust the school to keep him safe when he’s out of my sight.
I’m hopeful for a cure or a treatment that is more foolproof than just avoiding peanuts.
I hope he’ll grow out of it, though less than twenty percent of children do.
I worry about middle school and high school when he, like all adolescents, will rebuff my attempts to control any part of his life, including food choices.
Will he ever be able to enjoy food without hesitation or fear?
For now we’ll wait and continue to read every single food label and do our best to keep his meals and snacks healthy…and SAFE.