When Charlie Jones was 2 years old, he got peanut butter on his face and immediately broke out in hives, followed by a very severe reaction. He was diagnosed with an allergy to peanuts, tree nuts and milk.
Now 6 years old, Charlie’s life literally depends on a rigid adherence to safe foods. His parents, Aaron and Shannon Jones, are avid label readers. He is also a homeschooled first-grader, partly due to his parents’ anxiety over his allergy.
“If he touches peanut butter, he’ll get hives,” Shannon said. “However, if he ingests it, he will go into anaphylactic shock.”
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches used to be a staple on everyone’s childhood menu. But today, with 5.6 million American children and adolescents suffering from a food allergy, this childhood favorite has been replaced by safer foods — plus a very real dose of reality for parents who know that exposure to peanuts could be a matter of life and death.
Currently, the standard of care for food allergies is to avoid the allergy-causing food and to always carry a supply of injectable epinephrine, such as an EpiPen, to counter reactions.
But there are medical breakthroughs on the horizon. A new drug, Palforzia, manufactured by Aimmune Therapeutics, has been recommended for approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), perhaps as soon as January 2020.
If approved, this oral immunotherapy will include ingesting small doses of pharmaceutical-grade peanut protein daily, increasing the dose over months to inhibit the immune system’s overreaction to peanuts.
While a person with a peanut allergy may not be able to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, oral immunotherapy offers an extra buffer of safety against possible severe allergic reactions.
Today, some allergists take a proactive approach using desensitization — introducing foods with finely ground peanuts to reduce high-risk babies’ chances of becoming allergic to peanuts.
Also promising is a “peanut patch,” designed to desensitize allergic children ages 4 to 17 with a skin patch. These methods are not yet FDA approved so they are not currently available to the public. There is time now to discuss these possible future options with a family doctor or allergist.
Local schools also are very involved in the daily care of students who suffer from food allergies. “We’ve become more educated and aware of the allergies and how to support students when they are at school,” said Russ Ciesielski, superintendent of Linden Community Schools.
Many local schools have designated tables/areas that are nut-free zones.
“It depends on the severity of the nut allergy per classroom,” said Principal Sonya Shaughnessy of West Shore Elementary School in the Lake Fenton school district.
“For peanut-sensitive or mild allergies, students can sit together at the same table but are taught and not allowed to share food at any time. For severe nut allergies, including airborne or touch-sensitive students, we have allocated a peanut-safe table for students to sit at together, who have purchased hot lunch options only. All school-provided lunches are nut safe.”
Shaughnessy added that the food allergy trend is fairly stable at West Shore. “About 15 to 20 percent of students report major allergies. Allergies specific to nuts are consistently 3 percent or less,” she said.
Linden and Lake Fenton schools reported that their districts are prepared if a child goes into anaphylaxis shock because of exposure to an allergen.
Both districts said they have staff training on how to handle situations where a child goes into anaphylaxis shock. Each building has a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) made up of building staff and each building is equipped with EpiPens.
About food allergies
• One out of five food allergy sufferers had been to the emergency room at least once in the previous year because of a severe allergic reaction.
• Peanuts rank as the most common food allergy, affecting about 1.6 million young people.
• Milk allergies are the next most common, affecting about 1.4 million.
• Other common food allergies are to shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, fin fish, wheat, soy and sesame.
• About 40 percent of young people studied were allergic to more than one food.