Actress Julie Bowen, recently awarded her second Emmy for her role in the hit TV comedy “Modern Family,” started a more serious role last week: raising awareness about life-threatening childhood allergies and anaphylaxis.
The two-time best supporting actress in a comedy series and mother of three knows firsthand about potentially fatal allergic reactions. Her oldest son, Oliver, was 2 years old when he developed anaphylaxis as a result of a double-whammy exposure to a bee sting coupled with a bit of peanut butter.
“We had no reason to suspect we might have a problem. He had had peanuts before. And he had always been fine,” explained Bowen. “But then one day we found out that, no, he’s not.”
Almost immediately, Oliver’s face swelled dramatically. Other symptoms of anaphylaxis include chest pain; hives; breathing difficulties; tightening of the throat; lip and tongue swelling; nausea; dizziness and fainting.
Bowen’s husband, who was at home with the toddler, was terrified. “He knew it was bad.” Oliver was rushed to the hospital and immediately given an injection of epinephrine – the drug used for the emergency treatment of anaphylactic reactions that can follow exposure to allergens such as peanuts, walnuts, shellfish, bee stings, medications and/or latex.
“The goal is education,” said Bowen. “We, as parents, can’t always be with our children all day, every day. So we want the people around them to be educated.”
Thankfully, Oliver made a full and quick recovery. “Once he had the proper medicine, it was a very quick process,” she noted. “But today we always carry epinephrine with us wherever we go.”
Food allergies are the leading cause of anaphylaxis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food allergies in children have increased 18% since 1997. More than 9,000 children are hospitalized because of severe food allergies each year.
Many allergic reactions occur when children accidentally consume foods they’re allergic to at school. According to the CDC as many as one-quarter of anaphylaxis happens in students with no history of food allergies.
Parents and school employees shouldn’t dismiss a child’s complaints, Bowen says, “We want parents and teachers to know the signs, so that if you see them coughing, scratching at their throat some, or that they’ve got some rash, that you go ahead and look into it further.”
If you suspect your child may have an allergic reaction to anything, get it checked out. Call 911 and get medical attention immediately because there’s no way to guarantee that your child is never going to have an anaphylactic reaction.
The odds are not insignificant. “One to two children in each classroom could potentially be at risk for a serious food allergy,” says Dr. Carla Davis, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the section of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Of those, 30-40% would be at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Epinephrine is the first-line treatment, and caregivers must act quickly in order to treat effectively. How quickly? Ideally, within minutes of the child developing a reaction.
For more information on anaphylaxis, visit the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.