ATLANTA — Within five minutes of popping a chocolate nut cluster in her mouth one day last year, Kristen Valentine Jenschke’s daughter was in a fight for her life.
Her throat and mouth itched. Her eyelids swelled. Red blotchy spots covered her face. By the time Jenschke figured out Jenna had eaten candy from a grocery store sampling station and rushed her to a nearby children’s clinic, the girl was struggling to breathe.
“The staff at Children’s Healthcare was phenomenal, and they realized immediately what was happening,” the Marietta, Ga., mother said.
Like a growing number of children, the then-6-year-old was having an allergic reaction to nuts.
As many as one in 13 U.S. children suffers from a food allergy, a common cause of anaphylaxis. For some, the allergic reaction will prove fatal.
As part of the national Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis initiative sponsored by global pharmaceutical company Mylan Specialty L.P., local school districts are lining up to participate in some friendly competition to help raise awareness of severe allergies by rallying people to share their personal stories.
The competition, dubbed “Raise Your Hand for Anaphylaxis Awareness,” runs through Oct. 1 and allows people to virtually “raise their hand” for their school district to be counted as one committed to educating people about the dangers of severe allergies. Supporters can register their school district online at www.Anaphylaxis101.com. The competition launched in May.
Four school districts with the most raised hands will each receive a $15,000 grant to support educational programs, including anaphylaxis-related activities.
Jenschke didn’t know that her daughter, now 7, had a life-threatening allergy until that day in late December.
Her experience, experts say, points up the need for parents and people who work with children to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis and know what to do if it occurs.
That’s especially true for personnel at schools, where children spend a great majority of their time, said Dr. Stanley M. Fineman, an Atlanta allergy and asthma specialist and advocate for “Raise Your Hand.” Fineman said food allergies among children are increasing. And while the reasons are unclear, he said factors such as increased awareness, improved diagnostics and possibly the general increase in prevalence of allergic disease all play a role.
“There is a theory that early exposure to foods may induce tolerance, and in recent years, it has been common practice to delay introduction of certain ‘allergenic’ foods such as eggs and nuts,” Fineman said.
He said parents can protect their children by making sure they get a proper diagnosis but cautioned that “no one test is recommended as a stand-alone tool.”
“Once the potential trigger is identified, then appropriate precautions are needed, and the parent and patient need to be educated about avoidance measures and treatment,” Fineman said.
“Having an epinephrine auto-injector available at all times is critical,” he explained, “since that is the recommended first line treatment for patients having anaphylactic reactions.”
Fineman said about 2 percent of the population will experience anaphylaxis, but there have been as many as 1,500 deaths each year from life-threatening allergic reactions nationally.
Although hypotension (low blood pressure) or shock can occur, typical symptoms include skin rash, breathing difficulty, tightness in throat and swelling, Fineman said.
He said one of the benefits of the “Raise Your Hand” initiative is it will help inform the public about the risks and dangers of anaphylaxis, which is frequently misunderstood or mishandled — resulting in potentially life-threatening consequences for patients at risk.
Jenschke said she learned her daughter’s diagnosis the hard way.
“I remember passing the sampling stations, but I did not know that Jenna had eaten anything,” Jenschke recalled. “Within five minutes of passing the sampling stations, she complained that her mouth and throat were itchy. I gave her a drink of my tea and didn’t think anything of it.”
When that didn’t help, Jenschke said she spotted a napkin in the shopping cart and asked Jenna what she had eaten.
She bought Benadryl then headed to the nearest urgent care clinic. No luck.
“They did not treat allergic reactions in children, but they referred me to a Children’s Healthcare facility nearby,” Jenschke said.
Once doctors got her symptoms under control, Jenschke said they were allowed to go home with a handful of prescriptions, including an epinephrine auto-injector and orders for allergy testing as soon as possible.
Soon after, she said, Fineman told her Jenna was allergic to tree nuts.