Jennifer Wenrick’s son Colin, 6, had a frightening allergic reaction to a granola bar when he was just 2 years old. After consuming the snack, he immediately broke out with hives and began vomiting.
“It was terrifying,” Wenrick said. “I knew something was seriously wrong right away and rushed him to the doctor.”
Soon after, Colin was screened for food allergies and tested positive for peanut, tree nut and sesame seed allergies. For the next three years, Wenrick vigilantly kept her son away from these foods.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Wenrick said. “Food allergies permeate every aspect of your life, from traveling to preschool to Halloween candy. Every time he ate I could feel myself tensing in fear.”
But recently, Wenrick learned Colin could safely enjoy peanut products after he participated in a food allergy challenge at Seattle Children’s Food Allergy Challenge Clinic, part of the Seattle Food Allergy Consortium.
Better understanding allergies
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the prevalence of food allergies among children increased 18 percent during 1997–2007 and allergic reactions to foods have become the most common cause of anaphylaxis – sudden and life-threatening allergic reactions – in community settings.
For those who suffer from them, food allergies can be life threatening. However, allergy skin tests, the most common type of food allergy test, can result in false positives and aren’t used to determine the severity of allergies.
“Families often live in fear upon learning their child could have a food allergy,” said Dr. Suzanne Skoda-Smith, an immunology expert at Seattle Children’s and investigator in Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Immunity and Immunotherapies. “There are currently no cures for food allergies, so patients can only do their best to avoid foods that they may be allergic to.”
Seattle Children’s Food Allergy Challenge Clinic is a new treatment center for patients (ages 4 to 21) who have previously tested positive for severe food allergies to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts or sesame seeds. Using a highly controlled protocol, clinicians “challenge” these allergies by allowing a child to consume increasing amounts of a food to which they may be allergic while under the observation of trained medical staff. Staff at Seattle Children’s, including board-certified allergy immunologists, are well qualified to perform these challenges because they are highly experienced in treating anaphylaxis.
“Even if a child does not pass the oral food challenge in this clinic, showing reactivity to the food may allow them to qualify for future desensitization studies, potentially leading to tolerance for the food,” said Dr. Frank Virant, Allergy Division Chief at Seattle Children’s.
A tasty test
Wenrick first learned about food allergy challenges years ago, when she and her family were living in St. Louis. Unfortunately, their primary care doctor was not comfortable performing such a challenge in her clinic. So, after the family moved to Seattle last year and learned that Seattle Children’s had a clinic performing food allergy challenges, they immediately asked their local allergist for a referral.
“We were so excited when Colin qualified for the food challenge at Seattle Children’s,” Wenrick said. “His peanut allergy was already having a huge impact on our day-to-day lives, and we knew we would have to be even more careful once he entered kindergarten.”
On the day of the allergy challenge, Wenrick was nervous, but she was comforted knowing the staff at Seattle Children’s were extremely experienced treating allergic reactions.
For Colin, this allergy test was pretty sweet. First, he hesitantly ate two Reese’s Pieces candies. Over several hours, he was given more and more of the candies, until he made his way through the whole pack without any adverse reaction, proving he wasn’t allergic to peanuts, after all.
“I started crying, I was so relieved,” Wenrick said. “We can now take one major food allergy off our list of concerns, and Colin is excited to enjoy Halloween candy for the first time next year!”
While he still may have other food allergies, Colin can now safely and happily enjoy peanut products. Even if her son’s allergy had been confirmed, Wenrick said she would have been happy to have a definitive answer.
“I encourage other parents to see if their child qualifies for a food allergy challenge,” she said. “The staff at Seattle Children’s do an incredible job monitoring their patients and it’s empowering to know for sure what your child is allergic to.”
Parents who would like their child treated at Seattle Children’s Food Allergy Clinic should seek a referral from their primary care provider or allergy specialist.