Any bite could be your last with a food allergy
One of Matthew Mitchell’s earliest memories involves a fast-food hamburger in a drive-thru late at night.
It wasn’t a happy meal.
Mitchell, now 25, was just 3 at the time, but he was already hyper-alert about his food. So when his mother passed the patty to the back seat, Mitchell instantly knew something was wrong.
“I was never allowed to eat the bun because of my dairy allergy, and this time, the patty looked different, even though it was late and it was dark outside,” he said. But his mother said it was the same that he always ate — a plain burger.
Seconds later, Mitchell’s toddler suspicions were confirmed. There was cheese on the burger, triggering his dairy allergy.
He started vomiting and went into anaphylactic shock, a serious allergic reaction that can come on in seconds and can kill.
This wasn’t the first time it had happened, and it would be far from the last.
Allergy to milk is the most common food allergy in infants and children, though it’s different from lactose intolerance, which is an overreaction to a specific food protein. About 21/2 percent of children younger than age 3 are allergic to milk, according to Food Allergy Research & Education Inc.
And recent studies show that some children are not outgrowing it early in life as previously thought, said Dr. James Baker Jr., CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education.
Mitchell is one of them. And for him, it’s a very big deal. Although food allergies result in only about 150 reported deaths in the United States each year, allergy sufferers live a life of countless close calls.
“Some people may not understand how serious a milk allergy can be, because past studies have shown that the majority of fatal food-induced anaphylactic reactions are associated with peanuts and tree nuts,” Baker said. “But the fact is, milk allergy is not only potentially life-threatening but life-altering, because it can be very challenging to avoid.”
The first sign of problems for Mitchell started when he was an infant.
“He was having colicky symptoms, hay fever and sneezing,” said mom Lynda Mitchell, senior vice president of community services for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a nonprofit education and advocacy foundation based in Pennsylvania.
Lynda Mitchell had been breast-feeding her son, so she switched to a milk-based formula.
Matthew’s symptoms got worse. She switched to a soy formula, and when he stopped tolerating that, she switched to a hypoallergenic formula.
“That made him go into anaphylactic shock,” she said. “His face was swollen, he was gasping for breath, he was broken out into hives. I knew he was having respiratory difficulties, and I knew he needed to get to an emergency room, but I wasn’t aware at the time that he could have died.”
That was Matthew’s first emergency room visit. He was 11 months old, and he was officially allergic to every formula on the market.
Lynda Mitchell switched him to water and started cooking everything from scratch, using plain foods like potatoes and meat.
Her methods worked at home, but she knew it wouldn’t be long before she would have to release her son into the big, bad world of preschool — and for this, she’d have to be utterly prepared. After all, one drop of a milk product potentially could kill her son. If any of the preschoolers dared to share a cookie with her little boy, it could be a deadly treat.
“When I was looking for a preschool, I wasn’t looking for one that had the best academics or the best facilities. I was looking for someone who was willing to keep him safe and who was willing to take this on,” Lynda Mitchell said.
But she knew that one schoolteacher couldn’t handle this on his own.
“Whenever there was a food-related activity, I would be there,” Lynda Mitchell said. “I would bring safe ingredients for him.”
She couldn’t be there every second of every day, however. And that’s when mistakes happened.
Matthew was 7 when the next life-threatening scrape took place. He was in the hospital already for stomach surgery, and his mother put up a sign in his room regarding his allergy, she put a bracelet on her son and she told all the doctors, nurses and attendants.
It was the fortified whey in his hospital orange juice that got him.
Once again, Matthew went into anaphylactic shock.
“He wasn’t able to throw up because he had just had stomach surgery, and he went from head-to-toe hives, and he had breathing problems,” his mother said. “By that time, I knew that anaphylactic shock could be fatal.”
Matthew said he remembers wanting to throw up but couldn’t, and he said he passed out and can’t remember the details other than being very scared.
Three or four doctors rushed into the room, and Matthew eventually recovered.
Another time, his mother studiously read a label to discover that a candy bar was dairy-free before stuffing the chocolate into his Christmas stocking.
Matthew was in high school at the time, and by the end of Christmas morning, he’d started breaking out in hives like a bad sunburn.
“We went to the hospital, and the lab results came back saying that the chocolate had .001 percent dairy, so now, if you look at the label of the candy, it says that it may contain milk — because of me,” he said.
Having a dairy allergy has affected all aspects of Matthew’s life, and now that he’s in his 20s, it has affected his dating life. And not in a good way.
He had a date recently with a woman who wanted to cook him dinner.
“I said, ‘I’ll give you the ingredients,’ but she brought a baguette that was made in the store,” Matthew said.
The baguette itself didn’t have any dairy in it, but he knew it could be cross-contaminated. Still, Matthew said, he was feeling the dating pressure and didn’t want to look uncool. So he kept quiet and only took a small bite.
The small bite was big enough to cause a major reaction.
“I ended up breaking out in hives, and it was pretty mortifying,” Matthew said. “It was only the third date, and she was already taking me to the hospital.”
They had one more date before their relationship ended.
Today Matthew lives in Maryland and works as a junior human systems specialist for RED-INC, which is a Defense Department contractor. He said the key to living with a severe allergy is having good friends who understand it — and he does have these.
“My friends understand that we have to compromise on where to go and what the plans are,” he said. “I learned from my mom: having a lot of foresight and asking the questions — ‘Where am I going to get my food these days?’ It’s something I always have to think about. I don’t have the freedom of getting into the car and driving somewhere and hoping that it’ll work out.”
Eight foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions in the United States, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. These foods are: