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The kindy teacher who saved her own son after severe reaction to peanuts

 
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The first time Kath Webb used an adrenaline auto-injector (Epipen) on her son Hadley it was in a kindy room and she was his teacher.

Hadley, then 4, had handed her a partially eaten muesli bar and said, 'I can’t eat this, Mummy. It makes me cough.

Kath, co-director of Goondiwindi Kindergarten, sat him on the floor with a drink of water to 'watch him out of the corner of my eye'.

Minutes later, he vomited then lost consciousness.

Kath’s anaphylaxis training kicked in. She knew the systems that supplied blood and oxygen to her son's heart and lungs were failing.

She asked a co-worker to phone triple zero as she grabbed an auto-injector (commonly known by the brand name EpiPen) from its place in the kindy kitchen. 

Kath took the blue cap off the auto-injector and firmly pressed the orange end to Hadley’s outer thigh. She kept holding it there after she felt the device click, only releasing the pressure after she had slowly counted to 3.

She massaged the site of the injection as the adrenaline released by the auto-injector flowed through Hadley’s body, constricting his blood vessels, boosting his heartbeat and relaxing his airways.

To Kath’s immense relief, colour and warmth began returning to her son’s body just as the ambulance officers arrived.

She sat back on her heels and felt her own adrenaline subside.

Kath and Hadley spent the rest of the day at Goondiwindi Hospital.

On their immunologist’s advice, Kath was continuing to feed Hadley tree nuts despite his peanut allergy.

'When I had looked at the front of the packet at the supermarket, it said coconut, blueberry and almond, and I thought "yep, all fine,"' she said.

'But when I got home from the hospital, I went straight to the pantry. On the very top of the packet—the bit you open—it said coconut, blueberries, almonds … and peanuts.'

She immediately phoned the muesli bar company and gave them some frank and fearless advice about product labelling.

Hadley was diagnosed with a peanut allergy when he was 11 months old.

'It was a total shock to us,' Kath said. 'I’d been feeding him peanut butter since he was old enough to hold a piece of toast. And there were no allergies or asthma on either side of our family.'

Severe food allergies are unpredictable. Someone can have a mild reaction to peanuts or seafood or dairy on one occasion, while the next occasion is life-threatening.

The next time Hadley, who is now in Year 1, went into anaphylactic shock, it was after drinking a milkshake at a cafe, something he had done many times before.

'We think it must have been cross-contamination that time,' Kath said. 'Someone might have handled his glass after touching peanut butter … just a trace of peanuts is all it takes.'

Kath’s advice to fellow teachers, educators and carers is this: Stay as highly trained as you can, and be aware that the symptoms of anaphylaxis might not be what you would expect.

'In Hadley’s case, it’s all internal,' Kath said. 'No puffy eyes or lips. You can’t see what’s going on inside him.

'He vomits and passes out. That’s it. And when he does, there’s no time to lose.'

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Are you anaphylaxis-ready?

What are the symptoms of anaphylaxis?

Most reactions occur within 2 hours of ingesting the allergen, but reactions after 4 or more hours can happen. Any one of the following signs could indicate a severe allergic reaction:

  • pale and ‘floppy’ appearance
  • laboured/noisy breathing
  • swelling of the tongue and/or lips
  • swelling/tightness in throat
  • wheeze or persistent cough
  • difficulty talking/hoarse voice
  • dizziness or collapse.

What do I do?

  • Lay the patient down (or, if breathing is difficult, allow them to sit on the ground). 
  • Administer the EpiPen (‘Blue to the sky, orange to the thigh’). If the patient is also asthmatic, use the auto-injector before the asthma inhaler.
  • Phone an ambulance on triple zero (000). The patient will need medical supervision for the next 4 to 6 hours.
  • Phone the child’s emergency contact person.
  • Administer a second auto-injector if there is no response after 5 minutes.
  • Begin CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) at any time if necessary.

How common are food allergies?

The incidence of food allergies around the world is increasing and no one is sure why.

More than 170 foods are known to cause allergic reactions—even kiwi fruit and celery in some cases. But 9 times out of 10, the culprits are peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, cow’s milk, sesame, soy, wheat, lupin (a legume related to peanuts and soybeans), fish or shellfish.

Sometimes the protein that triggers an immune response is found in an unexpected place: Think dairy in tooth mousse or orange juice, fish in sauces and breadcrumbs, egg in mayonnaise. Anaphylaxis can also be brought on by non-food triggers such as insect venom, medication and latex.

One in 10 Australian infants has a food allergy. Most will grow out of their allergy to milk, egg, soy and wheat in childhood. But sesame, seafood, peanut and tree nut allergies are usually life-long.

For as long as a person is allergic, they are at risk of a severe, potentially life-threatening, reaction. Those who have had an anaphylactic reaction to a food are more likely to have another anaphylactic reaction to that food when next exposed.

More information

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy is the peak professional body in Australia.

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia is a charity for allergy support.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand provides information on allergy labelling.

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Last updated 06 August 2020