Taking action against allergic reactions

For generations of youngsters, a PBJ and a glass of milk constituted a simple, satisfying lunch or after-school snack. But for growing numbers of children, ingesting either or both of those foods could trigger a medical emergency.

Redmond mother to help fight the cause at awareness event Sept. 6

For generations of youngsters, a PBJ and a glass of milk constituted a simple, satisfying lunch or after-school snack. But for growing numbers of children, ingesting either or both of those foods could trigger a medical emergency.

Gayle Elam of Redmond is among parents who’ll participate in the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network’s (FAAN) “Walk for Food Allergy: Moving Toward a Cure,” Saturday, Sept. 6 at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma. She’ll be walking on behalf of her daughter, Erika, who’s entering first grade at Norman Rockwell Elementary and could have a fatal reaction if she eats peanuts, even a trace amount.

Medical researchers don’t know why, but the incidence of food allergies in the U.S. has doubled during the last 10 years. More than 12 million Americans have food allergies — that’s one in 25 or four percent of the population. Of these, about 2.2. million school-age children have food allergies and the incidence in those under the age of three is one in 17.

Some outgrow the allergies, while others never do. The only way they can prevent reactions is to strictly avoid the particular food(s).

The “Big Eight” foods, responsible for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions in the U.S. are milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios and walnuts), shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster) and fish (tuna, salmon, catfish, etc.).

Allergic reactions can range from a tingling sensation, itching or metallic taste in the mouth to hives, wheezing, difficulty breathing, swelling of the mouth and throat, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, a drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness.

During a recent visit from the Redmond Reporter, Gayle showed us one of several EpiPen (injectible epinephrine) kits that she and other adults keep handy in case Erika accidentally ingests or comes in contact with peanuts.

“An EpiPen has to be temperature controlled, so I can’t just leave it in the car,” Gayle explained. Each time Erika leaves her home, her mom or dad carries an EpiPen, plus there’s one at school and another kit available to other adult supervisors if she has a play date or a Girl Scout meeting.

“It’s a problem for more and more parents now,” Gayle added. “At my daughter’s school, four of the 36 half-day kindergarteners had severe food allergies. These kids have their own personal ‘stash’ of safe treats for class birthday celebrations, because they can’t risk eating the treat the birthday child brings to share.”

Gayle believes there are least 20 students school-wide at Rockwell who have EpiPens and food allergy emergency plans in the office.

When Erika was two months old, a dermatologist warned her parents that she might have severe food allergies, based on a birthmark and an outbreak of eczema.

When Erika was one year old, a few bites of scrambled eggs turned her face bright red — and when she was two, a severe asthma attack sent her to the emergency room. It’s common for kids with asthma to have food allergies, as well. After Erika’s parents pursued more testing, they found out she was 99 to 100 percent certain to have a life-threatening reaction to peanuts.

Avoiding the dangerous food has become a “way of life” for Erika and her family. The little girl, not quite six years old, routinely reminds grown-ups to analyze food labels before she eats anything.

But at school last year, an innocent-looking vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting made Erika very sick. Apparently, an ingredient in the treat had come from a food processing plant with “shared equipment,” meaning equipment that sometimes handles peanuts.

Luckily, Erika’s younger brother, Mitchell, does not have food allergies, but “he’s never had a peanut butter sandwich,” Gayle said, because it’s just not worth the risk of bringing peanut products into their home.

Gayle is planning a “Food Allergy Awareness Day” at Rockwell and other schools this year. She was excited to see a story on this topic in the June 2008 issue of Redbook magazine and to learn that country superstar Trace Adkins is the honorary chairperson for FAAN because his daughter has a severe peanut allergy, too.

“Having a celebrity call attention to this problem goes a long way toward educating the public,” she said.

As an avid promoter of FAAN, Gayle is also proud to point out that Erika won third place in the national 2008 Food Allergy News for Kids Poster Contest.

Gayle heartily recommends the book “Understanding and Managing Your Child’s Food Allergies” by Scott H. Sicherer, M.D. and invites the Redmond community to visit her Web site, www.foodallergywalk.org/goto/Gayle_Elam.