My son has had food allergies all his life. It began when I was breastfeeding, and he was in constant discomfort. At six months, we learned he was allergic to eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and sesame. He is 6 years old now and has outgrown his peanut, egg and almond allergies. He is an amazing kid who handles his food allergies with the maturity of an adult.
While he's had many doses of Benadryl over the years to combat hives caused by food allergies, we haven't had to use his EpiPen ... well, make that hadn't.
On Sunday night, we went to dinner at a relative's house. I had pre-approved the ingredients, and we were all set. During dinner, I gave him a piece of pita bread. I had read the ingredients, and all looked good.
Halfway through the pita round, he said his mouth felt sweet. Our son often says this. He is very sensitive to sweet food, and there is some bread that is a little sweet. We assumed he was having the same sensory reaction, and he drank some water to wash out the taste.
[Read: Food Intolerance: Fact and Fiction.]
Ten minutes later, he had dessert. Ten minutes after that, he threw up. In my gut, I knew this was probably food-related; but in my mind, I had difficulty coming to that same conclusion. After all, I checked all the ingredients!
Failure No. 1: I went with my mind, not my gut.
To make matters worse, we left his EpiPen behind, on the kitchen counter at our house. I don't think I've ever forgotten his EpiPen. Friends and family will tell you that I am a very organized person. You can imagine how I am beating myself up about this failure.
Failure No. 2: I forgot the EpiPen. We should have gone straight to the emergency room.
We did not go straight to the ER because we were living in the land of logic: He must have a virus because he did not eat anything with his allergen in it. We did immediately go home. In the car, I watched him like a hawk -- so much so that he began to stare back at me because he thought I was acting so weird.
After we got home, he rested and then had another big vomit. Immediately after he threw up, he got very congested. Again, in my head, I thought that was strange, but in my gut, I knew it was a respiratory reaction to an allergen. I gave him Benadryl.
Failure No. 3: I gave him Benadryl. I should have injected him with the EpiPen.
My gut was beginning to speak louder. My detective work began! I went through all the items he ate and rested again on that pita. I did an Internet search and found what I thought was the brand he ate, and read the ingredients. My heart sank. There, embedded between soy oil and salt, was my clue and my nightmare: sesame flour.
[Read: Strange (but True) Food Allergies.]
My pulse began to race, and my guilt was beyond palpable. I called our dinner host to make sure that was the brand he ate, and she confirmed that it was. I grabbed the EpiPen and called the allergist. Five minutes later, with the allergist on the phone with me, I injected my son. He yelled out in pain, and I immediately started crying. I knew I had done the right thing by giving him the shot, but I had done so much wrong leading up to it, and I felt horrible.
The next morning, our son told us that he immediately felt better after the EpiPen injection. Hearing that helped alleviate some of my guilty feelings of jabbing him with that epinephrine needle. I still, however, feel guilt, fear and failure. But I have learned so much.
Our night could have ended tragically and been the ultimate epic fail. I've read a thousand times never to hesitate in giving epinephrine. I hesitated and was lucky. I will never doubt again. Anaphylaxis does not have to look like a swollen face and lips with wheezing. Congestion is respiratory distress.
The epinephrine shot gives immediate relief, and I will repeat what so many doctors and parents have passed along over the years: When in doubt, give epinephrine.
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Judy Wendkos Liss, LCSW-C is a psychotherapist in Bethesda, MD. She works with tweens, teens and adults with a variety of issues such as life transitions, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and identity development. She also dedicates part of her practice to working with families coping with food allergies. She is a married mother of two wonderful children, ages 9 and 6.