My oldest child was diagnosed with peanut allergy when he was around 3 years old and my second child again when she was around 3years old. He had previously had reactions to different foods like eggs, and apples so it was something I was quite keen to get tested before he headed off to school and started going to birthday parties at friends houses etc. Before I had my first child, I literally knew nothing about food allergies, but following the results of his tests I very quickly had to learn!
We had been referred to the children’s allergy clinic in the RVH Belfast at the time and after various skin prick tests and blood tests, we were sent home with a list of foods to avoid, along with a prescription for Epi Pens. Joe had been diagnosed with peanut and tree nuts allergy along with various other food allergies. How on earth? I couldn’t understand how this could have happened. There is no one else in my family with a nut allergy so how on earth could this be the case?? I must admit, I felt very scared and very lonely after the diagnosis. We were literally sent home with a potentially life threatening diagnosis, some leaflets and expected to just get on with life.
So what did I do? After the realization of the seriousness of this diagnosis sank in, I researched and researched and educated myself on how to handle this, how to ensure the house would be nut free, how to ensure other family members took the diagnosis seriously and that they would ensure there would never be nuts coming into his contact. That proved a little harder if I’m honest. Some people just do not understand the seriousness of a life threatening food allergy diagnosis and may well think you are an over-reactive parent. If any of you have a child with a serious food allergy, or indeed you may suffer yourself, then you will know exactly what I am talking about! Some people just don’t get it.
Once my first was diagnosed we then tested my second child who had the same diagnosis. She has now grown out of her peanut allergy and following a nut-challenge in hospital she is free from any worries around eating nuts – thank goodness!!! It really was the strangest thing ever to sit and watch her eat peanuts. My nerves were wrecked waiting for her to react!
Thankfully we have never had any episodes of anaphylaxis where we have had to use epi pens, and there have been times where we have left the house without them which always leaves me totally nervous until we come home. 9 years on and we have become well used to checking labels, but I will never become complacent or take for granted the fact that a reaction could always happen at any point when he is eating outside of the home.
We have excellent support with School nurses and the schools are now nut free zones which is so reassuring. Now that he is attending secondary school, I have had to trust him with carrying his Epipens and trust him on knowing what he can and can’t eat. When he’s in school I’m not as worried but when travelling on buses and being allowed to walk up the town to the shops after school, well that leaves me more nervous I have to say. You just never know what can happen.
So how has my child ended up with this allergy? I will never know. I have my own theory around how it has happened which has been back up with agreement from Immunologists but we can never know for sure. We just have to deal with it and educate ourselves as much as possible. However, that fear, that lies deep within, that eating a simple food, could potentially result in taking a life sends shivers down my spine.
What is peanut Allergy?
Allergy to peanut and tree nuts is the most common food allergy in adults and children. However, since most children start eating other foods first, allergies to other foods such as egg and cows' milk protein typically present before nut allergies. While children often grow out of other allergies, only around 20% of children with nut allergies resolve. This means that 4 out of 5 children with nut allergies will continue to have these allergies as an adult. In some people, the allergy may become less severe with age, but in 20%, it can become worse with time.
Peanut allergy is becoming ever more commonplace, with recent studies showing that the rate of peanut allergy has doubled over a 5 year period both here in Europe and in the United States. Peanut allergy is estimated now to affect 1 in 50 young infants, and tree nut allergy also seems more common. The reason for this increase is not fully understood, but is in line with the general increase in all forms of allergy including asthma, eczema and hayfever.
The majority of allergic reactions to peanut and tree nuts are mild. Hives (nettle rash), eczema and vomiting are the most common complaints in children. However, some allergic reactions to peanut or tree nuts can be severe, causing difficulty in breathing due to asthma or throat swelling, or a drop in blood pressure. This is known as anaphylaxis, and allergy to peanut or tree nuts is one of the most common triggers.
In any case where an allergic reaction to a nut is suspected, the patient should be referred by their General Practitioner to an NHS allergy clinic for testing to confirm the diagnosis. Testing can be done by Skin Prick Tests or blood tests.
A food challenge test may be performed if the diagnosis of nut allergy is in doubt. This is a safe procedure provided it is undertaken in a specialist allergy centre with experienced medical staff. Not only will this procedure confirm an allergic reaction, but it will also provide an opportunity to assess how severe an allergic reaction could occur if one accidentally came in contact with peanuts.
What are peanuts?
Peanut (Arachis hypogaea) is a member of the legume (bean) family. Other members of this family include soya beans, lentils and garden peas. It is rare for a peanut allergic person to react to soya or other beans and legumes, but many peanut allergic people will also be allergic to other tree nuts, for example brazil or hazel nuts, which are genetically unrelated. Peanuts grow from the ground rather than on trees, and are sometimes referred to as ground nuts.
Many commonly used foods contain peanut extracts, but although hydrogenated vegetable oil may occasionally have a peanut source, it is unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. Hydrogenated vegetable protein may rarely have a peanut source, and this may cause an allergic reaction in an extremely sensitive individual.
What are tree nuts?
Tree nuts are a type of seed from plants, and come from a wide variety of different botanical families such as Rosaceae (almonds), Anacardiaceae (cashews), Proteaceae (macadamia nuts) or Lecythidaceae (Brazil nuts).
The distinction between tree nut and seed is not always clear. We often think of seeds as small seeds - like sesame seed, sunflower seed, poppy seed or pumpkin seed. In fact, coconut (including the husk and inner white flesh that we eat) is also a seed, albeit a very large one! This may explain why coconut is considered to be a tree nut in USA but a seed elsewhere.
Symptoms of Allergic reaction?
If you think you or your little one may have a food allergy it is important that you seek help from your GP or medical practitioner.
Lots more information can be found at www.allergyuk.org which is a fantastic resource packed with factsheets and information around allergies and intolerances.