This Man Says His Allergic 11-Year-Old Died From Smelling Fish Fumes. Can That Really Happen?

Food allergies are not something to mess with. And for people who have them, avoiding a triggering food about more than just not eating it—inhaling the aroma of the allergen in question could also cause a reaction.

So alleges Steven Jean-Pierre, who says his 11-year-old son Cameron died from being exposed to the smell of cooking fish. Cameron was visiting his grandmother’s home in New York where cod was cooking on the stove, reported the Washington Post. He had a known seafood allergy. After he started wheezing, his father treated him with the boy’s nebulizer machine, which is used in asthma attacks. It wasn’t helping, so Jean-Pierre called 911. Sadly, Cameron was pronounced dead at the hospital.

“He loved life,” Jean-Pierre told the Post. “For the 11 years he was in this world, he touched a lot of people.”

Fish is considered one of the big eight food allergens, according to the FDA, and fish can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Surprisingly, 40% of people who are allergic to fish have their first reaction as an adult, according to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE).

And while you may assume that someone with a fish allergy needs to avoid eating a fillet, they also need to avoid cross-contamination during cooking—and perhaps even inhaling fish fumes. “Being in any area where fish are being cooked can put you at risk, as fish protein could be in the steam,” according to the FARE website. Inhaling food particles can cause sneezing, coughing, wheezing, runny noses, and red eyes in those who are allergic.

It’s enough to make people with food allergies walk around paranoid. But here’s the reality: “Anaphylaxis, or severe allergic reactions, are exceptionally rare from inhalation of food allergens and almost always require ingestion,” David Stukus, MD, pediatric allergist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, tells Health. “There are rare case reports of fish or shellfish proteins becoming aerosolized when cooking on a stove top. Heating is the important element. Casual exposure from sitting next to someone eating a food will not cause anaphylaxis,” he adds. Asthma can predispose someone to have this type of reaction, or exacerbate reactions, as well.

If you or a loved one has a food allergy, it’s important to work with your doctor to understand how to avoid accidental ingestion of the allergen. It’s also important to carry an epinephrine auto-injector (like an EpiPen) in the event of anaphylaxis. “Epinephrine is the only effective treatment for anaphylaxis and should be given promptly, followed by transport to the nearest emergency department for monitoring and/or additional treatment,” says Dr. Stukus.

That’s a hard line: Allergy meds like Benadryl are not substitutes for epinephrine. With prompt medical attention, including administration of epinephrine, “thankfully fatalities from food allergies are rare,” says Dr. Stukus.

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