I had no idea my oldest son had potentially life-threatening or severe allergies until he experienced an anaphylactic reaction when he was a toddler. Although he had eaten peanut butter once before, the second time he ate it, his face and neck swelled. I was at work and my husband started texting me photos. We quickly realized it was serious because the swelling continued. Thankfully, my son was immediately treated for anaphylaxis in an emergency room and was fine, but the experience was a real wake-up call for me and my family. I wish we had known more about anaphylaxis before we experienced it firsthand.
I’ve learned a lot since the day my son was rushed to the hospital. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that has many possible triggers, occurs quickly and without warning, and must be treated immediately with epinephrine. Currently, an estimated one in 13 children in the United States lives with a food allergy. And while a food allergy is a common cause of anaphylaxis, it also can be triggered by insect stings, medications, latex or other allergens. We know this well not only because our son was diagnosed with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts, but because bee stings are also among his allergic triggers. Children and adolescents are among those most at risk due to increased exposure to potential allergic triggers.
I know now that anaphylaxis can happen anywhere and at any time, even if you may not think your child is at risk. That’s why I feel so strongly that anyone responsible for the health of a child should be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis and know what to do when it happens. That includes parents hosting a party, school staff, park and recreation personnel overseeing an event and still others.
I am sharing my family’s story because I don’t want anyone else to be in a similar situation and not realize how serious it can be or how to respond. To help raise the awareness of and preparedness for anaphylaxis, I’ve partnered with Mylan Specialty on the Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis™ initiative.
Fall in particular is an important time for my family and others to think about anaphylaxis. With three rambunctious boys, my family spends a lot of time outdoors taking advantage of the great weather. We love building forts in the backyard, hanging out with friends and playing in our local community parks. Since we have one child with severe allergies and the others do not, we need to be flexible. Avoidance is always top of mind — we prepare so that my son with allergies can actively participate in outings. After all, that is what being a kid is about. Together with our doctor, we’ve created an anaphylaxis action plan to first avoid anaphylaxis triggers, as well as lay out the steps we will take if anaphylaxis occurs. We talk about this plan as a family and we share it with others who need to know about it, like babysitters, teachers and coaches. Though we will do our best to avoid allergic triggers, accidental exposure to allergens can happen, so the plan helps us to know we are prepared if my son experiences anaphylaxis again.
Our anaphylaxis action plan has three steps. First, we do our best to help my son avoid his allergic triggers. He knows to ask about what is in a food before he eats it or comes to talk to my husband, me or the adult present about the food if it is something unfamiliar. I often carry allergy-friendly snacks with me so I know he will be able to have a snack if needed. When we are outside, we try to stay away from open garbage cans or food containers that may attract bees. If he’s having a drink from a can, we pour it into a cup so that a bee doesn’t get trapped inside the can without us knowing. In addition, we encourage him not to run around barefoot since it is possible to step on bees.
Second, we know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis. I’m not a doctor — I don’t even play one on TV — but I’ve learned common symptoms of anaphylaxis may include trouble breathing, chest pain, skin hives or redness, tightness in the throat, swelling of the lips and/or tongue, nausea, dizziness, a decrease in blood pressure and/or fainting. We know one of the most important things we can do is know when anaphylaxis is happening so we can take action.
Finally, we always have access to two epinephrine auto-injectors, understand how to use them and know to seek emergency medical care if anaphylaxis occurs. Epinephrine is the first-line therapy indicated for an anaphylactic reaction, according to national food allergy guidelines. The bottom line is, people who are experiencing anaphylaxis need epinephrine quickly.
Ultimately, my goal is for everyone to know more about the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis and how to respond if it occurs, especially people who work in places where children gather. There was a time when people didn’t know the meaning of the words cardiopulmonary resuscitation or Heimlich maneuver, but we all know them now. By raising awareness of this issue, it can soon be the same for the term anaphylaxis.
I hope you and your family are outside enjoying the fall as much as we are. For those at risk for anaphylaxis, always have an anaphylaxis action plan in hand.
Julie Bowen is a wife, mother of three children, and an Emmy Award-winning actress of “Modern Family.”
Anaphylaxis Preparedness at Play
Julie Bowen and her family have an excellent action plan in place should anaphylaxis occur. Their quick and simple outline of ways to avoid allergens and what to do in the event of an attack can easily translate to the park and recreation setting. Whether you’re preparing to work as a camp counselor, coaching a sports team or facilitating after-school programs, it’s important to know what to do if a child shows signs of anaphylaxis. Below, find some tips to get started with your anaphylaxis preparedness plan.
Communicate proactively. Make it easy for parents and caregivers to understand your camp, park or recreation center’s protocols in the event of a medical emergency, including regulations regarding medication, nearby hospitals and any certifications held by counselors, such as CPR training.
Ensure accurate documentation. Make mandatory the completion of a comprehensive form that will clearly identify if a child has any allergies, including those related to foods, insects or medications. Caregivers should also include information about any medications prescribed to a child and how they should be administered.
Know the healthcare landscape. Be familiar with ambulance response times, especially if your camp or park is in a remote location. In very rural areas, it may be helpful to discuss with nearby medical personnel the availability of medications for anaphylaxis, including epinephrine, and to have auto-injectors on site in the event anaphylaxis should occur. All staff members should receive proper training in the administration of epinephrine auto-injectors.
Variety is the spice of life. Make sure to have a wide array of allergen-free snacks on hand, taking into account allergies to nuts, dairy, eggs and gluten.
Involve the kids. Make sure children understand not to trade food that may pose an allergic risk to others. Children should also be encouraged to communicate with counselors and coaches about their medical needs, medications they may be taking, or if they feel they may have come in contact with an allergen and are in need of treatment.
Police the area. Fit garbage cans with secure lids, use cups for soda or sugary drinks (versus cans, where bees and other stinging insects can hide) and encourage children to wear adequate footwear while in grassy areas. All these steps will help to mitigate any stinging threats from bees, wasps or hornets.
Click here for more tips and guidelines for dealing with anaphylaxis.