Lessons From a Teen Food Allergy Tragedy

in Food Allergy
Published: August 22, 2013

Accidental ingestion of her allergen led to Natalie Giorgi’s fatal reaction. Read what two experts have to say about how to handle similar accidental exposures.

Dr. Robert Wood discusses accidental ingestion of allergens, epinephrine use and the spectrum of allergic reactions.

Thirteen-year-old Natalie Giorgi was camping with a group of families in Sacramento, California on July 27, 2013. She ate a single bite of a Rice Krispies square and thought it tasted “funny.” The peanut-allergic teen spat it out. The taste turned out to be peanut butter.

At first Natalie didn’t show any symptoms after the accidental ingestion of her allergen. Her mother gave her a dose of antihistamine. But in 20 minutes the systemic reaction began. Her father, a physician, then gave her three successive doses of epinephrine. But by then it wasn’t enough to stop the rapid-fire chain of events. Natalie began vomiting, her throat swelled to the point where she could no longer breathe, and she went into cardiac arrest. Natalie died in her parents’ arms.

“It’s beyond words what they’re feeling,” Rev. Michael Kiernan of Our Lady of Assumption, the family’s church, said in early August 2013.

Natalie’s story spiked fears among Allergic Living’s readers, in particular parents of children and teens with food allergies. It also raised questions about just what to do in case of an accidental allergen ingestion. In this Q&A, we turned to two experts for answers. First to be interviewed is Dr. Robert Wood, the director of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. Next is Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergist and professor of medicine at McMaster University in Canada.

Interview with Dr. Robert Wood

Allergic Living‘s Jennifer Van Evra: There seems to be a lot of confusion about whether to administer epinephrine in the case of accidental ingestion of an allergen. And how soon. What do you tell patients?

Dr. Robert Wood: There is no single set of recommendations, because it depends on many factors. But the general rules are that you need to have epinephrine readily available; that it needs to be given promptly in the event of a reaction; that the longer it’s delayed before being given, the greater chances that it won’t work; and that every patient needs to have an individualized action plan that they’ve worked out with their caretaker.

AL: What determines that type of action plan?

RW: There are certainly people who are at higher risk than others. The four main risk factors are the individual’s prior reaction history – although you can have no history of severe reaction and still react very severely in the future. But if someone has a history of severe reaction, you never wait and see what happens. The second is that any food has the potential for dangerous reactions, but most fatal reactions are related to peanut and tree nut allergy. So they automatically indicate a higher possibility of a severe reaction. The third risk factor is having asthma because it’s very rare to find a fatality in someone who doesn’t have asthma. Then the last risk factor is that the vast majority of fatalities have occurred in teenagers and young adults.

AL: Is that a function of physiology or lifestyle?

RW: Likely some of both. There is some increase in allergy severity to peanuts and tree nuts through childhood, so by the time you’re a teenager or young adult, most people are at their peak level of sensitivity. But the far more important factors have to do with lifestyle: a greater availability of food items, less supervision, more risk-taking behavior, and less chance that your epinephrine will be on hand.

AL: What if a person has an accidental ingestion of a bit of an offending food, then spits it out and shows no symptoms?

RW: It depends on the individual, but I have large numbers of patients where their action plan does recommend automatic injection of epinephrine for any known exposure or even an expected exposure. In most instances, the more quickly it’s given, the better.

AL: When someone doesn’t have symptoms for 20 minutes after accidental ingestion, then suddenly goes into anaphylactic shock, what’s going on?

RW: Even when food is spit out, there is still absorption of the allergen in the mouth and throat, and the absorption typically happens over a period of 10 to 40 minutes. As that food is absorbed systemically, the chain of events that make up an allergic reaction are all put into effect. It can be delayed by up to two hours, but nearly all allergic reactions will begin in the first 30 minutes.

AL: A lot of people think they will feel the effects instantaneously.

RW: That’s often a localized reaction in their mouth and throat where they’ll feel itching very quickly. But systemic symptoms won’t happen instantly, because you have to absorb the food. You can see them within minutes, but 20 minutes would be a typical timeframe.

AL: What are the signs that tell you, “OK, time to inject”?

RW: For my patients, we talk about reactions that are very localized versus anything more than localized. Localized would be itching in the mouth, a few hives around their mouths, and nothing beyond that. Anything beyond localized, even just hives that are spreading, indicates a need for epinephrine.

Then certainly involvement of other systems in the body. If you’re having repetitive vomiting, any respiratory symptoms, then you would automatically get epinephrine. High-risk patients aren’t given any discretion: they’re advised to give the epinephrine automatically and immediately.

AL: Many people take antihistamines like Benadryl as a first line of defense after accidental ingestion of an allergen. What is your take? And can it mask symptoms?

RW: Antihistamine is a useful medication for some relief of symptoms such as a few hives, but it has no capacity whatsoever to prevent or control more serious allergic reactions. If a reaction is going to progress, the administration of Benadryl will not help to prevent any real progression.

We [allergists] don’t worry that it masking things; it’s not potent enough. So we don’t think there is any risk in giving it – except for the false sense of security it might give that it will help relieve or prevent a more dangerous reaction. It won’t do that at all.

AL: But people get nervous about administering epinephrine. What do you say to them?

RW: We reassure them that it’s incredibly safe. Even if you get a dose you didn’t really need, it is not a problem. So it’s better to give it if there’s any doubt rather than not give it. Every study has shown that epinephrine is dramatically underused, even in highly educated populations. There are a lot of reasons for this. In some it’s fear of the needle, in some it’s fear of the drug.

There’s a misconception about danger with the drug, which is actually still held strongly by a lot of emergency room physicians. So even in the setting of the emergency room, epinephrine is dramatically underused. But 80 percent of the time, one dose of epinephrine will completely reverse an allergic reaction. And it is very safe.

AL: Do people need to go to the hospital every time they take epinephrine?

RW: You do. But one of the big misconceptions is that you’re going to the hospital because you’ve just given your child a dangerous drug. This is not the reason. You’re going to the hospital because you’re having an allergic reaction that required epinephrine, so you need to have your allergic reaction further evaluated and monitored. We want them to stay at the hospital, typically for a four-hour observation period. This is because the reaction can look like it’s resolved and then come back two hours later. It’s not because of the epinephrine.

If 100 people took their EpiPens right now accidentally, and they didn’t really need it, we would say, “Stay at home, you’re fine.” The medication is not a worry at all.

AL: One parent e-mailed to say: “Besides food allergies, my child has highly sensitive skin. If I gave her the auto-injector every time she had a hive, it would be once or twice a week.” How do you differentiate between a localized reaction and a systemic reaction?

RW: Every symptom needs to be interpreted and treated in the context of the situation. So if those hives showed up in a situation where the parent is quite confident there was no ingestion of a problem food, we would treat them as a very benign condition. If hives showed up with a child at a birthday party or at a family picnic where there’s lots of food around, and the child’s been out of the parent’s sight, then you have to assume there’s been a food exposure. You would treat that possible reaction more aggressively.

Next: Speaking to kids about fatalities; plus Dr. Waserman’s views