For parents of children allergic to a kitchen staple like peanut butter, it’s hard to know what’s safe outside the home.
Lisa Horne followed the advice she’d heard about introducing peanut butter to her youngest child, Stetson. A few months ago, after he turned 1, she made him a peanut butter sandwich.
“I thought it would be a fun experience. I loved PB&J (peanut butter and jelly) growing up,” she said. “He didn’t want anything to do with it.”
So she put some on her finger and put it up to his lips. “He started screaming bloody murder,” she said.
Within seconds Stetson’s face “puffed up.” His eyelids were swollen shut.
She rushed him to the hospital, where the staff began immediate monitoring and care.
Unknown to Horne, Stetson suffers from a severe allergy to peanuts known as anaphylaxis.
“It’s very scary. Had I known what I know now, I would have just taken him to an allergist when he turned 1 and had him tested,” the Gilbert mom said.
Neither Horne nor her husband has any food allergies, so her son’s reaction took them by surprise. But, doctors say, it’s becoming more common.
Children with anaphylaxis may experience swelling in their airways if exposed to peanuts directly, such as eating one, or indirectly, such as when the residue of a peanut butter sandwich remains on a table. It can also lower their blood pressure and cause a heart attack, Horne said. After her son’s diagnosis, she spent hours researching the allergy and joined the Phoenix Allergy Network and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.
She then took steps to make her home peanut-free.
But she said it’s hard to know what’s safe outside the home.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the period from 1997 to 2007, the number of children with food allergies rose 18 percent.
Dr. Mark Rose, a Gilbert physician with the Arizona Asthma and Allergy Institute, said there are a few hypotheses about why allergies have been increasing, especially to peanuts.
One relates to hygiene. In Western society, “we live in a more clean environment,” Rose said. The human system is geared to fight infections, and parasites and bacteria that may exist elsewhere are limited here.
“It’s like our system doesn’t see anything better to do so it sees the proteins from pollens and foods and decides to fight them,” Rose said.
The second hypothesis involves the way peanuts are processed in the United States.
While peanuts are prevalent in Asian cooking, where they are boiled before being consumed, allergies are not as great there, Rose said. In the United States, peanuts are roasted first.
“The process makes it more allergenic,” according to the hypothesis, Rose said.
People of all ages may develop an allergy, but it’s more common in younger children. And if a child still has the allergy at age 7 or 8, they’re more likely to keep it, Rose said.
Most children with an allergy to milk outgrow it by age 5, Rose said. But only 20 percent of children outgrow a peanut allergy.
Allergy reactions may include wheezing, swelling, hives and rashes, he said.
Blood and skin tests can be used to determine food allergies. Rose recommends parents have both done by a doctor who specializes in food allergies.
“There’s not a lot to do other than avoidance,” once a food allergy is known, Rose said. “There’s no medicine. Studies are being done to desensitize” kids, but they’re not ready for the public as a whole.
Allison Gannon, 21, a master’s degree student at ASU, is allergic to wheat and celery. Because the reaction only happens if she’s exposed to those foods prior to working out or physical activity, she wasn’t diagnosed until she was 10 after extensive testing.
“It has a big impact on your life in terms of going out. Wheat and celery can be in a bunch of products. I have to be eternally cautious,” she said.
In case she is exposed to the foods, she carries around an EpiPen, which contains epinephrine for the emergency treatment of anaphylaxis.
She had to last use it six months ago.
“If I don’t take anything, my throat will swell up. I won’t be able to breathe,” she said.
Due to the rising number of children with peanut allergies, some public areas, including schools, have taken steps to curb the chances of children being exposed to the food.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have joined the effort.
Along with the Phoenix Allergy Network and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, the Diamondbacks will set aside peanut-free suites during two games in the next few months. The suites will be scrubbed down before the games and families who purchase tickets will also be escorted to the suites in peanut-free elevators.
The peanut-controlled games will be 1:10 p.m. May 23 and Aug. 22. Suite tickets are limited and cost $25. Children 2 and younger get in free to these designated events.
Ticket information can be found at www.phoenixallergynetwork.org.
The FAAN Walk for Food Allergy, to raise money for research, will be held Dec. 4 in Tempe.