Keeping Mum

Dita De Boni looks at the trials and tribulations of being a parent.

Going nuts

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I admit it: I was one of those mums who always thought there was far too much hysteria about peanut allergies.

I was quietly bemused last year on receiving a chart from kindy outlining suitable afternoon tea snacks, none of which were allowed to contain peanuts. (Or yoghurt, but this can be completely understood from a heck-of-a-mess perspective).

Just a week ago I was reading this article in Salon and chuckling to myself.

The article suggests that groups raising awareness about peanut and tree-nut allergies may have hyped the figures and created still more anxiety about life-threatening reactions to peanuts amongst parents...

After all, it's hard not to believe that peanut allergy fears have become over-hyped when, as related in this article, a peanut was found on the floor of a US school bus containing 10-year-olds and the whole bus was evacuated and hosed down as a precaution!

But as those of you who are parents will well know, it's a sure bet that the minute you think something is ridiculous, as soon as you think 'that will never happen to my child', it sure enough does. And that is, yet again, precisely what happened.

Let me just preface this story by saying that my maternal side was very "allergic".

We all have some degree of asthma, excema, hayfever, arthritis and the like - conditions which exist where the immune system over-reacts to external or environmental stimulants.

In addition, I married a man who has also had most of these conditions, albeit in a somewhat lessened form as an adult.

These conditions greatly increase - by as much as 50 per cent or more - the chances that your children will also inherit a tendency to them. And food allergies are amongst this group - allergies to nuts, eggs and fish in particular.

Hoping against hope, however, I had thought the children would be spared this annoying suite of conditions.

They'd both eaten everything without problems until this point - with relish, in fact. I had stuck to the advice about keeping them away from peanuts but I had thought it was more a case of avoiding choking than triggering an allergic response.

And then, one morning when my husband had kindly got up early to fix the kids their breakfast, I came into the kitchen to see peanut butter on the 10-month-old's toast.

I said to him - being polite because I had really enjoyed sleeping in - that I was waiting until the baby was a year old before giving her peanut butter. And then I turned to her, and noticed her face was red and mottled.

She wasn't gasping for breath. She was whiny, but still alert and moving. But she definitely had big red blotches all over her face and, as it turned out, had not eaten much of the peanut butter at all.

Later that night she was served fish and again broke out in red patches.

I have been referred to a immunologist to check her over. But I've had to mention her allergy to some people and no one is surprised.

The doctor told me it's rare to have a life-threatening reaction, but quite common to be allergic, and that it was now recommended that children stay away form peanuts and peanut products until the age of three.

One in three pre-school children are allergic to peanuts, and peanut allergy is the most common food allergy around. For reasons that no one can pinpoint, it's growing at a seemingly exponential rate.

It will be no problem for us to avoid peanuts, and we've noticed that our contemporaries and institutions now avoid peanuts like the plague anyhow.

At least my daughter has so far escaped the fate of her cousin, whose mother had to call an ambulance when she appeared to stop breathing and collapse on her living room floor after eating peanut butter.

But small reactions can lead to more serious reactions; and the most serious reaction can be death - some 150 every year in the US, and a substantial number of hospital admissions in this country too.

So despite my previous chuckles, my wondering at how something as small and salty as a peanut could possibly be such a lethal weapon, I'm now fully on board the no-peanut boat and happy to set sail with everyone else!

- Dita De Boni

Pictured above: They look innocuous enough, but for children with nut allergies this snack could be deadly. Photo / Derek Flynn

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