How a Child, Near Death, Survived an Allergic Reaction

After a traumatic hospital trip, this toddler's parents now teach him exactly what foods he can't eat.

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Courtesy of Misty Meade

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The allergic reaction that nearly killed Colton Meade struck without warning. As his mother ran errands near their Denver home, 18-month-old Colton, sitting in the back seat, began projectile vomiting.

"I pulled over and lifted up his shirt and could see he was developing hives all over his body," recalls Misty Meade. "He was coughing and rubbing his throat."

Colton, a previously healthy boy who'd never shown signs of allergies, was experiencing anaphylactic shock—a rapid, potentially deadly kind of allergic reaction. Now his throat was swelling shut, and he was struggling to breath.

What saved Colton's life that day in April of 2011 was his mother's readiness to act quickly, coupled with the lifesaving medical care he received at Children's Hospital Colorado, just named by U.S. News & World Report to its 2012-13 honor roll of Best Children's Hospitals.

[See the Honor Roll of Children's Hospitals in photos.]

Misty Meade grabbed her phone and called the pediatrician. Colton had consumed a few peanut butter crackers about an hour before, and mother and doctor figured—correctly, it turned out—that the snack was the culprit. Nationwide, peanut allergies affects more than three million people. And from 2004-2006, food allergies landed 9,537 children under 18 in the hospital, according to a Center for Disease Control report.

Misty raced Colton to the hospital. "I think the stars aligned that day," she says, because her son's reaction occurred just 10 minutes from one of the best children's hospitals in America. In the emergency room registration line, a passing nurse noticed the swollen, vomit-soaked Colton, listened to his chest, and quickly ushered him and his mother back to triage.

"It felt like there were at least 10 doctors and nurses multitasking and administering and doing what they needed to do," Misty says. "One was getting my story. One was listening to his chest. One was starting an IV. One was figuring out how much epinephrine to administer. And everyone worked together very calmly ... I had a sense he was going to be OK, and we were going to get through this, and he wasn't going to die."

Colton didn't die. But he was at great risk. A doctor at Children's Hospital Colorado informed Misty that Colton's reaction was severe and nearly fatal, and if it happens again, it would be worse. It turned out that Colton is not only allergic to peanuts, but also eggs, sesame seeds, garlic, shrimp, and more. Dan Atkins, Colton's pediatric allergist at Children's Hospital Colorado, says these food allergies are not unusual for children who, like Colton, who have eczema or atopic dermatitis.

[Check out the complete Children's Hospitals rankings.]

All parents, especially those whose young children have eczema, should pay special attention to their children's eating habits, Atkins suggests. The development of rashes and hives upon contact with certain foods is worth discussing with a doctor, he says, as is a child's refusal to eat. Colton refused to eat eggs, and Misty assumed he just didn't care for them. Now she thinks maybe the eggs caused an uncomfortable reaction on his tongue.

When introducing their children to common food allergens, such as peanuts and eggs, Atkins says parents should do so in very small amounts initially, and then watch for symptoms.

Misty Meade and her husband now count themselves among the millions of American parents who must vigilantly protect their children from the dangers of allergies. They've taught Colton, now two-and-a-half, to avoid peanut butter; in the grocery store, he'll point out jars on the shelf and say "bad" or "yucky." They've made sure the staff at his preschool has EpiPens, which can deliver a quick shot of reaction-neutralizing epinephrine, and a medical action plan if a reaction occurs. And they bring safe treats for their son when he attends birthday parties and other events.

Colton is a good sport about his food allergies, Misty says. Before eating anything, he knows to ask if he can have it. Holidays have the potential to cause meltdowns over dangerous candies, she says, but Colton takes it in stride. That gives his parents one more thing to be thankful for.