I was at a trendy cafe when I bought a fancy açai bowl with perfectly sliced fruit. I mashed a piece of a banana and fed it to my nine-month-old son.
Within 10 minutes, his face reddened like he had been in the sun for too long. For a microsecond, I thought he was reacting to banana. Then, I remembered the peanut butter on top. Still, I didn’t believe it was an allergy. After all, I had given him peanut butter twice before when he was six months old and it was uneventful on both occasions. We also didn’t have any family history of food allergies. His three-year-old sister ate everything fearlessly.
Full of false confidence, I finished my bowl and went home.
An hour later, his face had turned blotchy and his eyes were puffy. He was undeniably red. His neck, torso and arms were covered in hives. I called an aunty who conveniently, was a retired paediatrician. In her most “be alert but not alarmed” voice, she suggested that we go to the emergency in case it escalated.
According to Google, escalation was anaphylaxis, a severe reaction which could include vomiting, wheezing, swelling of tongue and throat, collapse.
I slammed my laptop shut and we drove to the children’s hospital. The triage nurse checked his vitals and gave him baby antihistamines. With the doctor, I listed all of the things he had eaten that day. Peanut butter remained the top suspect. At the allergist’s the following week, a prick test confirmed a peanut allergy.
Despite its dramatic presentation, we didn’t meet the criteria to take home an EpiPen, an injection of adrenaline used to treat anaphylaxis. Our management plan is to avoid peanuts for the next 12 months until he can be tested again. This, as our doctor advised, is because we don’t know how he will behave the next time he interacts with peanuts. In case of accidental exposure, we should minimise peanut products in the house and carry junior antihistamines. We call the ambulance at the first sign of anaphylaxis.
In theory, this was straightforward enough. In practice, I felt anxious and overwhelmed, unsure of how I would manage a peanut allergy on top of everything else that comes with raising two kids under four. I also felt naive for assuming that it wouldn’t happen to us.
I decided to arm myself with knowledge so I could better protect my son. This led me to speak to Dr Preeti Joshi, a paediatric allergist/immunologist and co-chair of the National Allergy Strategy. Joshi tells me that childhood food allergies are on the rise in Australia, and that one in 10 babies under one will develop one.
While common, “it can be unexpected for parents who have no family history especially parents of Asian backgrounds whose children are born and raised in Australia,” says Joshi. “There are lower incidences of food allergies in India and China, as examples.”
I learned that this area of health is often misunderstood. Joshi says that parents can believe a childhood food allergy is for life but about 80% will outgrow an allergy to cow’s milk or egg. Another common assumption is that a peanut allergy is also an allergy to other nuts such as almonds and cashews.
“Peanut is a legume and people who are allergic to peanuts are not necessarily allergic to tree nuts,” says Joshi.
The unexpectedness was felt by Stacey, a Sydney mum of two, when she gave her then eight-month-old daughter hummus on a Sunday afternoon. Having “cleared” pulses and legumes (including peanuts), Stacey didn’t suspect the sesame in the dip. After an anaphylactic reaction where adrenaline was administered when the ambulance arrived, a prick test would confirm an allergy to sesame and also to cashews and pistachios.
Similarly, Mondoni is a Melbourne mum of a three-year-old with a peanut and egg allergy. There was no family history of peanut woes and the reaction to peanuts appeared on the fifth attempt.
Both parents spoke of devastation and disappointment initially but have found a positive path forward.
Stacey’s daughter is now seven years old and doesn’t go anywhere without an EpiPen. As a family, they have learned where they can safely eat out and have slowly built the confidence to share meals with family and friends.
Mondoni manages by removing peanut products from the house and avoiding Thai and Middle Eastern cuisines.
“It is perfectly normal to feel anxious when your child is first diagnosed. In part, it is necessary to remain vigilant,” says Joshi. “But it is an additional load especially when our mental health has already suffered from peak pandemic times.”
Since that frightful day at the emergency, I have learned so much about food allergies. I have been grateful for the medical care and the empathy shown by friends, family and community.
Inspired by tales of resilience from Stacey, Mondoni and others, I feel more equipped to help my son – the load feels a little lighter with their encouragement and support.