Katherine Hall has had to use the EpiPen on her son, Jack, four times in 18 months as the list of food allergies continues to grow. Katrina Lovell spoke to his mum about the food allergies that are getting worse as he gets older.
Most of us know someone with a food allergy and for some the condition is life-threatening.
As Warrnambool three-year-old Jack Hall grows, so does the list of the things he is allergic to.
Among them are the usual suspects – milk, egg, nuts and soy.
But list of foods also off the menu for Jack also include orange, banana, pumpkin, chickpea, mandarin, tomato, strawberry, chicken, pork and lamb.
To date, there are 18 different foods that Jack is allergic to and he has an anaphylactic reaction to most of them.
“His list is just out of control. What’s to say he’s not going to keep growing into the allergies? That’s the unknown,” mum Katherine said.
“They look at me and say he’s a bit more complicated than the usual.”
She said most people would have common allergies to one or two foods, maybe even as many as four.
“But all these other things like tomatoes and watermelon, they’re just really rare for him to react,” she said.
Statistics show that almost one in 50 children have a peanut allergy and the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy says food allergy occurs in about one in 20 children.
It also reports that hospital admissions in Australia for severe allergic reactions have doubled in the past 10 years.
Jack was nine-months-old when he first started to show signs of food allergies.
Katherine had to be hospitalised with mastitis and Jack, who hadn’t really been interested in solids, had his first taste of real food.
“I think we mixed up some muesli with yoghurt for him and the very next day he could hardly breathe,” she said.
They took him to the doctor and he was diagnosed with asthma. It was decided it was probably caused by a viral infection, but as time went on it became clear there was more to it than that.
“It was definitely the dairy because any time he has dairy, he gets asthma,” Katherine said.
“About a month later I made him some tomato and pasta and he just came out in all the hives. Just gradually I was introducing foods to him and he would react with hives and rashes and swelling.
“After about 12 months, the way he reacted really changed.
“When he had a reaction to chicken, he was actually going in and out of consciousness. He was fine for one minute running around playing and then the next minute he would just go all floppy and lethargic and non-responsive.
“That particular time, all it was was a piece of chicken stuck in his teeth.
“We were on the phone to the ambulance and they were telling me to jab him with an EpiPen. I handed him over to my sister-in-law which made him cry...she saw the chicken in his teeth, pulled the chicken out of his teeth and just like that he sprung up.”
Jack’s allergies are rated as severe, moderate or mild. So while his allergy to watermelon is mild, he will almost instantly get a rash and hives or vomit.
With foods that he has a severe or moderate reaction to, it can sometimes take between two and to 24 hours to react.
“He’ll go to sleep and you think he’s just tired and then he’ll wake up and vomit everywhere and he goes completely out of it. It’s so bizarre,” Katherine said.
Jack was 12 months old when he received his first shot with the EpiPen. At the time Katherine was told that out of the thousands of EpiPens that are distributed, very few are ever needed.
“I’ve had to use four in 18 months. That’s rare,” she said.
Katherine said during one episode, Jack’s blood pressure had rapidly dropped and he went “all blue”.
“I’m scarred. My husband and my other two children are as well. Even just when we’re eating food, particularly out of the home. Everybody is on tenderhooks. Everybody is watching him,” Katherine said.
“One night we went out to dinner and he actually fell asleep at the table because he was completely exhausted and you should have seen the panic around the table. And someone was saying he was swelling and I’m running around trying to get the EpiPen.
“You wouldn’t think you would have to be on edge that much.
“Now when he reacts, we actually drive to the hospital and park out the front, which might sound a bit over the top. But now that each reaction is getting worse, we’re too scared to just stay at home and hope for the best.”
But they haven’t let Jack’s condition stop them from eating out and, surprisingly, recent tests reveal Jack can eat almost any seafood – a common food people will have an allergic reaction to.
Every week they take Jack to Simon’s on the Waterfront where they specially make calamari for Jack.
”It’s such a treat for him,” Katherine said.
“We’re down to kangaroo, meat-wise.
“I will feed him the food once and wait three days before he has it again because we’ve seen him grown into it. He used to eat pork, he used to eat beef, he used to eat chicken but he’s growing into them as time goes on.”
Fortunately Jack is able to eat wheat, so he can have toast and honey for breakfast (minus the butter).
“Coconut and rice is a big staple in his diet. If the kids are having an ice-cream, there’s actually a coconut ice-cream you can buy at the supermarket and he thinks it’s Christmas,” Katherine said.
Katherine has learnt to adapt the family diet to suit Jack’s needs and makes sure she sends food for him if he goes to a party.
“We always take food that I have prepared or bought, knowing it’s safe - no matter where we go. Even hospital,” she said.
While Katherine is not worried about sending Jack to the controlled environment of kinder or school, she was too scared to put him in daycare.
“It does happen when we go out for tea - if the kids around him are eating tomato sauce and they’ve got it on their hands and then they play, if he gets that tomato sauce on his skin, he blows up,” she said.
This week she visited a new specialist in Melbourne in the hope of finding some answers.
“There has to be something. He can’t just keep reacting to every single food on the planet,” she said.
Katherine is hoping that as Jack gets older, he will outgrow the allergies.
“Surely he will in time. I don’t know what age … (but) you’d hope so. It’s not looking that way at the moment. Everytime we re-test, he’s getting a worse reaction.
“We used to be able to do a skin prick test, which is the easiest way to test. He now has this condition where if I scratch him, he will react to that scratch. It’s called dermagraphism.
“So every time he has allergies tested, it has to be taken through his blood.
“And this is our next big battle. Medicare will only cover a small percentage of the cost of these tests and they will only cover four tests per year.”
Katherine said doctors were also considering investigating whether Jack had a form of epilepsy.
It’s not just foods that Jack has allergies to - it’s also common air allergies such as grasses and dust mites.
“Everything in our house is chemical free,” Katherine said.
As a baby Jack couldn’t wear disposable nappies and would break out in large boils until she switched to nappies without bleach.
Despite his allergies, Katherine said Jack had never been sick with infections or needed antibiotics.
“He’s been able to lead a normal life,” she said.
Katherine has set up a Facebook page called Journey for Jack where you can follow his progress.