Growing Up with Severe Peanut Allergies

A mother and SAFE + FAIR Brand Ambassador shares her personal story of living with food allergies.

by Lauren Zylstra, SAFE + FAIR Brand Ambassador 

LaurenBefore the food allergy epidemic that we are seeing increased every year among our children, I grew up with a severe peanut allergy.  At about age four, my mother gave me a peanut butter sandwich.  My oldest sister had an allergy to almonds, both of my parents had asthma and seasonal allergies, but none of this led them to a cautious approach to food introduction. Within mere seconds of my first bite, my tongue swelled, the corners of my mouth erupted in hives (as well as my hands and right thigh where the peanut butter was smeared from the grace with which a three-year-old devours a sandwich--ha!), and I began wheezing.  Luckily, my mom knew the signs of severe allergy, so with a quick dose of Benadryl we rushed to the hospital. That was when I was given epinephrine, observed for a few hours, and sent home with a prescription for an Ana-Kit. It was a syringe filled with epinephrine, accompanied by an alcohol swab, rubber intended to be a tourniquet, and four Benadryl, inside of a handy, red, plastic container. 

Ana-KitI carried this kit everywhere I went, fearing that I’d have to find a competent adult to jab me in an emergency, until the brilliant invention of the Epi-pen.  At that point, I was entrusted to save my own life. My parents instructed me to be cautious, never try something without asking if it contained peanuts or peanut butter, and to always tell an adult if I felt like I had eaten something accidentally. This led to an extremely anxious childhood, often watching my friends and family enjoying peanut-filled products. I’d hold my breath because the smell made me nauseous and very afraid.

Unfortunately, I have experienced Anaphylaxis five times in my 41 years:  

  • At 3, from one bite of a peanut butter sandwich
  • At 14, at a birthday party from one bite of a cookie cake that contained Reeses’ Pieces
  • At 21, from one bite of couscous at a restaurant (I didn’t ask!)
  • At 25, from one bite of chicken satay at a BBQ (offered to me from a friend-- again, didn’t ask!)
  • At 25, again, from one bite of an eggroll that contained peanut butter (we asked if anything contained peanuts--not a specific enough question, I guess)

Most of my mistakes were made as a young adult. Twice, I didn’t even have my Epi-pen with me! Honestly, I am truly LUCKY to be alive. 

As a parent, I finally took full responsibility of the risks and near death experiences I had survived, and I vowed to never put my children through the anguish of my cavalier actions leading to a situation that would traumatize them eternally. I must ask about every food that I eat in a restaurant, at a friend's house, at a family gathering, and I must read, re-read, and read again, even the most familiar and non-suspicious food labels.

This history of mine is not intended to frighten anyone. I want parents to know that I can mostly understand what their experience with their food-allergic child is like. However, I can’t fathom translating my personal fear for myself, having it be about your most precious child/children. It is a tremendously scary and intimidating task that you face. Navigating our current world, with all of the cross contamination and risk, must be terrifying at times. You are the reason I have become a Brand Ambassador for SAFE + FAIR. I understand your struggle (as well as anyone can), and I feel grateful to be confident in a product that reflects the focused energies of our informed and intentional company, created by two parents of food-allergic children, trying to make the world a better place for our children.

To follow Lauren’s family’s food allergy journey, follow her on Instagram at @lbzylstra.