Mum shares challenges of managing young son's severe food allergies: 'You have to advocate all the time'

Picture: Supplies
Picture: Supplies 

For Phoebe Lynch, just a fraction of egg, dairy or peanut could cause her four-year-old son Owen Maher to suffer an anaphylatic reaction.

The mum of two, from Melbourne, has spent the last three years getting acquainted with food labels, creative cooking and advocating for her son, both socially and at daycare. 

While people are often aware of food allergies, she says, many often don't understand how severe they can be or that a reaction could happen at any time.

It's something she's learnt the hard way, after Owen suffered an anaphylaxis last year after eating a new brand of wonton wrappers that did not declare they contained egg on the packaging.

Alert to the symptoms - including when it's a delayed reaction, she followed their management plan and gave Owen a shot of adrenaline via an EpiPen and rushed the little boy to hospital in what was a terrifying experience for the whole family.

It's not been his only trip. As a curious toddler, he sat next to another child at daycare at 18-months-old, reaching over and taking a sip of their milk. It resulted in a serious reaction and a trip to the ER, where the family spent six hours under observation. And a swift revisal of and changes to the daycare's policies. 

Owen's allergies first showed as a baby, when Phoebe was told Owen, who also had eczema, was failing to thrive. Testing found he had allergies to egg and dairy and when she began to introduce solids, they found he was also allergic to peanuts. 

Picture: Owen suffered an anaphylaxis last year after eating a product with an undeclared egg allergen

Picture: Owen suffered an anaphylaxis last year after eating a product with an undeclared egg allergen

"Early on we had lots of flare up events.We introduced peanuts and he had quite a severe allergic reaction, he was vomiting for 15 minutes and had hives, it was quite scary knowing his response," Phoebe shared.

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Further testing revealed he was highly allergic to all three, throwing some big challenges to the first time mum.

"From an everyday perspective, egg and dairy are in so many items, it was really tricky. For any parents with anaphylaxis, your life is at the supermarket reading tiny labels on the back of packets," she continued.

It's not just food they have to careful with, as many hand soaps and other household products can also contain milk products, meaning Phoebe has to take her own soap everywhere they go. 

"So many items we can't go near, so we've become really good at making our own food. Eating out for us is pretty much a no-go zone. He can safely eat chips, but even then you have to be really vigilant and ask all restaurants about cross contamination risks and say he is anaphylactic." 

Picture: Owen has had to make several trips to the hospital following severe reactions to food

Picture: Owen has had to make several trips to the hospital following severe reactions to food

One of the biggest struggles is finding a balance between ensuring people are aware of the risks, without making them fearful, especially when it came to play dates.

"You have to advocate all the time, that's what I've noticed with it. I don't want to be a hovering parent around food, but I want to let everyone know if I organise play date to say he's anaphylactic and say he'll be bringing his own food," Phoebe explained.

"You kind of feel like you have to provide support as well, tell them they don't have to not eat peanut butter at home for a week. Because you don't want him excluded from social interactions."

The mum has also ensured Owen has a good, age appropriate understanding so he knows what could happen to his body, can communicate any symptoms and to know to check what's in any food offered to him. And to understand the process if a reaction were to occur.

Ensuring they always have an adequate supply of EpiPens doesn't come cheap, either.

Expiry on pens can be as little as six months and although they get two through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, they also need to buy a further two each time to supply their daycare, at $100 a pop.

Picture: The whole family, including Owen's younger brother Rory (centre left) follow a strict diet

Picture: The whole family, including Owen's younger brother Rory (centre left) and dad Greg follow a strict diet

Phoebe is sharing her story for World Allergy Week, which seeks to raise awareness of severe allergic reactions and anaphylaxis, which land more than 2,400 Australians in hospital and kills close to 20 people each year. 

Australia has one of the highest global prevalences of allergies, affecting close to four million people. It is especially high among children, where it can affect as many as one in ten infants and one in 20 children.  

While for many the affects of an allergic reaction may be uncomfortable, for a smaller cohort - like Owen, they can be life threatening. It's prompted the National Allergy Strategy to urge people to familiarise themselves with the signs of anaphylaxis and what to do. 

Should someone suffer a reaction, they suggest:

  • Looking for any breathing difficulties, tongue or throat swelling or dizziness or collapsing
  • Contact Triple Zero

  • Positioning a child or adult correctly

  • Administering adrenaline (via an EpiPen) quickly

  • Not allowing a person to walk to an ambulance/medical treatment, due to the drop in blood pressure which could affect blood flow to their heart