Dara's little boy was 17 months old and just experimenting with soft foods when the Klamath Falls mother found out he was allergic to peanuts. Within seconds of that first little taste of peanut butter, he was terribly sick. "He started scratching his throat and face and itching and coughing and throwing up. He started breathing real fast and his chest started sinking, and he got real pale," Dara remembers. "It [was] very scary: we drove 80 miles an hour to the hospital." That pinkie-tip bit of peanut butter sent her son into life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
Some might dismiss a peanut allergy as media hype, but Dr. Edwin Kerwin, a Medford internist who is also board-certified in allergy and immunology, says that an allergy to peanuts is one of the most common and most severe of food allergies. "Food intolerance occurs in as many as 10 percent of everyone in Oregon," explains Dr. Kerwin. "That means that eating certain foods, like milk or eggs, might give you a stomach upset, diarrhea or gas, but that's not really anaphylaxis."
In 2005, a 15-year-old Quebec girl who was allergic to peanuts died shortly after kissing her boyfriend. The boyfriend had recently eaten peanut butter and her death (although not a result of kiss-transmitted, peanut-induced anaphylactic shock) triggered a media storm about the dangers of peanuts — and a research investigation at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine that was published in the September 2006 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Researchers found that immediately after eating peanut butter, enough proteins remained in the saliva even after rinsing and brushing, to cause an allergic reaction. One hour after eating though, the peanut proteins had almost reached undetectable levels.
Just to be on the safe side, researchers recommend waiting to share that kiss for at least an hour or more if peanut allergies are a concern for the recipient.
Dr. Kerwin estimates that only about 1 percent of the population is truly allergic to peanuts. "The more severe reactions include getting hives all over, massive swelling of lip, eyes, face, and tongue," Dr. Kerwin says. "Asthma can come on after eating peanuts and in the most severe cases, it (the peanut allergy) causes faintness and fainting episodes and low blood pressure."
Kids will grow out of some allergies but peanut allergies will be with them forever.
"For young children, school-age children, it's important that their day care providers and schools or babysitters also know that they are allergic to nuts," advises Dr. Kerwin. Sarah Larance is a day care provider at the Eagle Point Community Bible Church Day Care and pays attention to food allergies in part because of her work, but also because her 7-year-old son, Landon, is allergic to peanuts. "Kids kind of look at him funny when he says he can't have nuts," says Sarah. "They'll ask, 'You can't have peanut butter?' I think it's good to enlighten everybody that there are people out there with allergies."
"For people who have food anaphylaxis, the treatment is definitely to avoid the food in all amounts," cautions Dr. Kerwin. For those who are allergic to peanuts, even a trace of peanut oil or a morsel of the protein-charged nut can cause an attack.
Peanut-induced anaphylactic shock can be treated with fast-acting antihistamines that counter the body's reaction to peanut proteins. Dr. Kerwin recommends that his patients carry Benadryl and an epinephrine device called an Epipen, in case of an accidental ingestion. Children, teenagers and adults who are allergic to peanuts may need to be reminded to keep emergency medicines with them, but teenagers are especially at risk, reports Dr. Kerwin. "They're busy in their lives, they don't want to think about a medical condition and there's a certain amount of denial in teenagers."
For now, though, Dara's got her 2-year-old son well-protected: "We read the ingredients on everything, and I don't buy anything that has tree nuts or has been processed in and or around peanuts at all. I don't even chance it." Cooking from scratch, Dara is grateful that pastas, fresh fruits and vegetables keep her son on a healthy diet. "From a mother's standpoint, just to see him healthy and not have to worry so much, makes you feel really good — now that we've pinpointed his allergy."