At just 10, Caitlin Cawte chats confidently to staff in restaurants, ordering her own food and telling them just how it should be cooked.
The waiters and waitresses probably find the schoolgirl’s outgoing, confident nature charming and funny– until they realise the extremely serious nature of her requests.
Caitlin has had to grow up extremely quickly since suffering allergic reactions to nuts, one so severe that she struggled to breathe and ended up being rushed to hospital.
The anaphylactic reaction – an extreme allergic response – was triggered not by Caitlin accidentally eating something on her banned foods list, but by a kiss from someone who’d been snacking on peanuts.
‘We think that was the cause. Caitlin had a small cut on her cheek and a friend had been eating peanuts,’ says her mum Kerry.
‘They were devastated of course, but how do you know? Each reaction she’s had has been so different and you’d think it was okay as long as she stayed away from nuts. We think this one was so bad because it got into her bloodstream.’
Caitlin, from Cosham, had been enjoying a meal at a pub with her family and friends, but was cut on the cheek by a zip when someone was putting on their jacket.
It is thought the kiss may have caused the reaction that left the little girl shivering, ashen-faced, struggling to breathe and on the brink of collapse.
Kerry had to spring into action, jabbing her daughter in the thigh with an EpiPen – an injection of adrenalin which helps the body fight a life-threatening allergic reaction.
‘It was absolutely terrifying, I was shaking of course,’ says Kerry.
‘I’d feel confident now but I’d never done it before so it was pretty horrible.’
Now Kerry and husband Richard focus on preparing their daughter for life with such a dangerous condition.
‘It’s hard for her, she had some counselling after that,’ says Kerry. ‘She was only eight and it’s a lot for a little girl to deal with. She was saying she couldn’t breathe.’
Thankfully attacks can be avoided. But they can be fatal and people in danger of anaphylaxis have to be extremely sensible and vigilant. In severe cases it’s not just a case of avoiding nuts but foods that may have been contaminated by touching other foods with nut ingredients.
‘We try to have a really normal life as a family,’ says Kerry.
‘I know people who shut themselves away, almost, not going out much and never eating in restaurants. I can understand but I don’t want life to be like that for Caitlin.
‘But at the same time she has to learn to be aware. It sounds weird to say, but we never want her to feel 100 per cent safe in her environment. We want her to be on the lookout for all the potential dangers.’
Caitlin is a sensible girl who is happy to swap sweets and biscuits given to her by friends with the goodies in her special snack box.
She really misses Dime Bar cakes but says he doesn’t like most nuts anyway. Diagnosed at six after a more minor attack, she has had help from books like Cyril the Squirrel – an extremely unfortunate rodent with a nut allergy.
But she says: ‘It isn’t nice having an allergy, it’s quite horrible actually.’ And her mum adds: ‘She’s a happy girl but there are times when she asks ‘‘why am I different?’’’
But Caitlin isn’t alone and many believe that food allergies are on the rise. However, Professor Tara Dean, director of research at the university of Portsmouth, says that isn’t the case.
‘Asthma is and researchers are looking at possible reasons for that, but there doesn’t seem to be an increased rate of food allergy. The perception seems to be that it is on the rise but that could be because there is greater awareness.’
That’s good news for patients, says Tara, but it can also cause problems. ‘People go on Google and diagnose themselves and there is so much different information out there that it can be confusing and overwhelming. People could be cutting things out of their diet unnecessarily and that could then affect their health in other ways.’
A Focus on Health event at the university this month brings together doctors, researchers and patients to discuss the latest thoughts on asthma and allergies.
An allergic reaction occurs when the body wrongly identifies a normally harmless substance as a threat and releases an antibody against it.
The result can be anything from a runny nose and itchy eyes to a skin rash and feeling sick.
Severe allergic reactions (called anaphylaxis) can cause swelling,breathing problems and a drop in blood pressure.
Attacks can happen within a few minutes but Caitlin’s severe reaction took almost an hour.
‘She became aggressive on the way home, shouting at us and pushing us away,’ says Kerry.
‘She can have a bit of attitude, like most kids. But now we know it can be linked to a reaction.’
Diagnosed with a tree nut allergy at six, Caitlin had suffered two previous attacks but they had been nothing like as serious.
The schoolgirl and her family have received plenty of help and support from the allergy team at Southampton General Hospital and charity the UK Anaphylaxis Campaign.
Caitlin is now dedicated to helping others and has raised money for the campaign with a sponsored bike ride. She’s also had a haircut for the Little Princess Trust, which makes wigs for children with cancer.
She says: ‘If you raise money it will help other children. That’s important.’
The family are ultra-cautious, avoiding takeaways and bakeries because of cross-contamination of food and alerting airlines when they travel.
‘We don’t want it to be a big deal in her life,’ says Kerry. ‘We want it to be something that’s in the background, but she does have to be really cautious.’
INFORMATION AND SUPPORT
The Anaphylaxis Campaign was set up to help people who have life-threatening allergic reactions to foods, latex and insect stings.
The charity supplies information and support to help sufferers manage food allergy.
It also raises awareness, working in nurseries, schools, colleges and universities, providing training, running workshops and working with caterers, manufacturers and retailers.
The charity campaigns to improve allergy services within the health care system.
The university event gives sufferers and their families the opportunity to hear from various experts who will showcase the latest research, treatment and thinking on asthma and allergies.
The idea is to combine an academic viewpoint with feedback from a GP, hospital doctor and a patient. Speakers include research fellow Professor Tara Dean and Hazel Gowland, who has a severe nut allergy and works for the UK Anaphylaxis Campaign.
University researchers have visited schools to talk about the conditions and launched an art competition for pupils to illustrate what it’s like to live with asthma and allergies. The winners will receive prizes on the night.
Focus on Health: Asthma and Allergy takes place on November 28 from 6pm until 8pm in the Portland Building at the University of Portsmouth. Tickets are free and available at http://asthmaandallergy.eventbrite.com