Wednesday, September 26th, 2012
A few days after her Emmy win, I had a chance to chat with actress Julie Bowen but, following a quick congratulations, asked her to switch gears from an exciting moment in her life, to one that was downright scary. When Bowen’s oldest son, Oliver, was a toddler, his face and neck swelled up after eating a bit of peanut butter, and he began having trouble breathing. He was rushed to the emergency room. “My husband and I thought we knew a lot about children and food allergies,” says Bowen. But after his allergic reaction, “we realized how little we knew. That wasn’t even his first exposure to peanuts.” Luckily, Oliver, who is also allergic to bee stings, recovered quickly, but for Bowen, it was a wake-up call.
Now she’s taking part in the Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis initiative, which aims to increase awareness of and preparedness for allergic reactions in school. Bowen says that, in a way, it was helpful that Oliver had such a strong reaction: “We knew right away to take him to the emergency room.” But sometimes symptoms can be more subtle. Your child may experience dizziness, headaches, chest pain, trouble breathing, an itchy throat, nausea, or a rash, among other things.
The best way to cut down on the risk is to avoid allergic triggers, but of course, accidents can happen. So what can you do? First, know the most common causes of anaphylaxis: cow’s milk, eggs, nuts, fish, soybeans, and wheat, as well as non-food triggers such as insect stings, certain medications, and latex. Children who are younger than 3, have a family member with allergies or asthma, or other predisposition are more likely to develop allergies. If your child has one, find out if his school has a prevention and treatment policy, and meet with the school nurse to discuss an action plan in case of anaphylaxis. Even young children can look out for themselves, as well.
“Oliver is his own best advocate,” says Bowen, of her now 5 year old. “He never puts anything he’s never had before in his mouth without asking, and he always asks a grown-up to read him the ingredients label.” When I seemed impressed by his proactive attitude, Bowen told me that, for younger kids, having an allergy can make them feel cool and special. As they get older, they may start to feel like an outsider. That’s why Bowen makes sure her son understands his allergies are just another characteristic, like having red hair or blue eyes. She tells Oliver, “You can’t eat nuts and, if you get stung by a bee, you need to get immediate attention,” then moves on. “I don’t want it to define him, but I do want it to be part of his everyday awareness.”
Today, Oliver keeps a prescription epinephrine auto-injector with him wherever he goes, and Bowen makes sure that, if he’s not with her or her husband, somebody knows how to use it. Aside from that, she says, “We really encourage Oliver to do the things kids love, like taking part in recess and play dates.” (Or perhaps attending awards shows with his mom?) And with a few precautions, there’s no reason he can’t!