By Erin Alvarez
It happened without warning. At lunch one day, Michelle Agnoletto’s son, Kaiden, complained about his tongue burning, then started coughing and sneezing and said his stomach hurt.
“When we took him inside to lay down, we noticed he had a full body rash.”
Just shy of his fifth birthday, Kaiden had never had a reaction like this to any type of food.
“We took him to a walk-in clinic and were told we needed to have him tested for a food allergy. It was a very lengthy wait to see an allergy specialist,” says Agnoletto, who lives in Schomberg, Ont.
“We avoided all foods that had been eaten that day until testing accurately identified his allergy to tree nuts—specifically cashews and pistachios.”
The life-threatening allergy caught Agnoletto and her husband off-guard. And the scariest part for this family was learning that tree nuts can be in just about anything, including baking mixes, cereals, crackers, sauces, and various snack foods.
Allergic reactions like Kaiden’s happen when the body’s immune system overreacts to a particular allergen. According to Health Canada, “the 10 priority food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, milk, eggs, seafood, soy, wheat, sulphites and mustard.”
While reactions can vary, the most severe form is anaphylaxis.
What we can do
“Currently there is no cure for food allergies,” Health Canada states. “The only option for managing the risk is to completely avoid the specific allergen.
“Appropriate emergency treatment for anaphylaxis includes an injection of epinephrine, which is available in an auto-injector device,” commonly called an EpiPen.
Mary Jane Farrish, principal of equity and inclusive education for the Halton District School Board, says schools must follow an anaphylaxis protocol and policy.
“Our policy speaks to a ‘risk reduction’ model and so reduced exposure to the allergen is our commitment,” Farrish says.
“[We send out a letter to all parents] as part of our September information package, and there is annual training for school staff about anaphylaxis.”
Agnoletto says Kaiden’s school aims to be nut-free, but there’s always a chance someone may not follow the rules.
“His school requires an EpiPen with his name on it to be kept in the office at all times. He must also keep a second EpiPen in his school bag. He has a third that is kept in the ‘before- and after-school program’ room.
“Both the office and after-care program have a safety plan posted on the wall with his picture on it.”
Farrish says each child is treated individually to establish a student management plan that works for them.
“Practices will look a little bit different due to age, stage and family preference.”
Kaiden wears a tree-nut allergy bracelet, and knows to ask if something is tree-nut free, but Agnoletto says there’s always a risk.
“I’m still far too nervous to let him go to birthday parties or play dates alone, leaving another parent with [the responsibility of monitoring his food]. I always bring a ‘safe’ treat with me in case he can’t eat what’s being offered.”
Talk to other parents
While family and close friends have gone out of their way to make sure things are nut free for him, Agnoletto says she has had to defend the seriousness of his allergy a few times to parents who question why their kids can’t bring anything they want in their school lunches.
“I simply ask them how they would want things handled if it was their child with a life-threatening allergy,” she says.
Agnoletto remembers how difficult Kaiden’s diagnosis was to accept, and urges parents of newly diagnosed children to talk to other parents going through the same thing.
“I got a lot of advice and recommendations from other moms,” Agnoletto says.
“Most important, I learned it’s best to educate your child first. They are the first line of defence! Even family members who love your child very much and have the best intentions can forget to check an ingredient list every once in a while.”
Agnoletto says they’ve chosen to remain positive that one day Kaiden won’t have to worry about what he eats.
“Our allergist told Kaiden he has a 40-per-cent chance of losing this allergy by puberty. We’ll keep our fingers crossed every November when he is retested.”