When 1984 Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord and his wife Valentina learned that their relatives were coming to visit California, they were excited. The couple loved to cook, so they made one of their relatives’ favorite dishes: chicken satay with peanut sauce.

Their 2-year-old son, Luc, was the first one served. He took a piece of chicken, raised it to his mouth, and then threw his plate against the wall.

Auto Injectors

“Our son is not a violent child, and he’d never thrown anything before this point, so we knew something was wrong,” said Valentina Gaylord in an interview with Healthline. “We looked at him, and immediately he started getting red, he started swelling, hives were covering his body, and his lips were getting very large. So we called 911.”

On the way to the emergency room, Luc began vomiting. Once there, proper medical treatment got his symptoms under control.

But that was only the beginning. Luc now has to carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen), to save him in case of allergic reaction, for the rest of his life.

Learn More About Food Allergies: Expensive for Parents, Deadly for Kids »

EpiPens Everywhere?

Luc’s school stocks EpiPens, but not all do. This lead to the death of student Cameron Espinosa in Texas, who had a fatal allergic reaction to ant bites while playing football on his middle school’s field.

In response, Texas passed new legislation to encourage schools to keep EpiPens on hand and have employees trained in their use. According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), nine states to date have passed laws requiring schools to stock epinephrine.

Dr. Jacqueline Pongracic, allergy and immunology division head of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in the United States, someone goes to the emergency department for a food allergy reaction every three minutes. That equals 200,000 emergency visits per year.

“People who don’t have immediate access to epinephrine have a higher risk for more severe allergic reactions and fatal outcomes. I enthusiastically support this legislation,” Pongracic told Healthline in an interview.

People who know they have allergies carry EpiPens with them, but people — especially young children — who have never before been exposed to a particular allergen might not know of the danger.

“A lot of the children who get exposed who are unaware and pass away from their allergy is because, wherever they were, they weren’t prepared,” said Valentina. “There was no epinephrine handy, readily available and administered right away upon the reaction beginning.”

The Gaylords would like to see EpiPens not just in schools, but also in restaurants and other public places that serve food. And as the new generation ages and enters the workforce, this will become an issue for workplaces as well.

The cost without insurance is about $300 to $400 for a two-pack. The Gaylords think that this is a small price to pay for safety.

“It’s like a fire extinguisher,” said Mitch Gaylord. “We have those everywhere, and the chances of a kid having a food allergy reaction are higher than having a fire somewhere. So let’s have that protection in place to potentially save a kid’s life.”

Severe Allergic Reactions

Normally, the immune system functions to keep invaders like viruses and bacteria at bay. But sometimes, it can go haywire, overreacting to tiny particles called allergens.

Common allergens include pollen, dust mite droppings, and animal dander. Exposure can make people experience itching, swelling, redness, hives, and runny nose and eyes.

However, it’s the less common allergies that can trigger severe, potentially life-threatening reactions. When these severe reactions occur, the airways can swell and narrow to the point where the person can no longer breathe (anaphylaxis). Without oxygen, they can enter anaphylactic shock — when the blood vessels widen and blood pressure drops to the point where they fall unconscious.

Common severe allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, insect stings, latex, and certain medications.

To treat anaphylaxis, allergic people or bystanders can use an EpiPen, which shoots a dose of epinephrine (a medical term for adrenaline) through clothing directly into the muscle of the thigh.

This causes the airways to fly open and the blood vessels to tighten, restoring airflow and blood pressure. It’s only a temporary measure, however — if someone needs to use an EpiPen, they or another person should also call 911 for immediate medical attention.

Read on: Asthma and Allergies on the Rise in the U.S. »

Allergens Everywhere

Luc, who’s now 4 (almost 5, he’d like you to know) isn’t alone.

As many as 15 million Americans have food allergies, and the prevalence of these allergies among children has risen 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Today, about 1 in every 13 children has some form of food allergy.

Severe food allergies are rising accordingly.

“Evidence suggests that anaphylaxis is increasing globally, based upon number of visits to emergency departments and hospitalizations for anaphylaxis,” said Pongracic. “A European study showed that the rate of emergency visits increased seven-fold over the past decade. Food allergy is the most common cause of anaphylaxis for pediatric emergency department visits. Basically, kids may not outgrow allergy as early as they did in the past, so this could account for some of the increase in cases of anaphylaxis.”

What’s driving this increase?

“The simple answer is that we don’t definitively know why food allergy among children has risen at such a dramatic rate,” added Dr. James R. Baker Jr., chief executive officer of FARE, in an interview with Healthline. “What we can say, however, is that there is some general agreement in the scientific community that the rise could be attributed to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.”

Related Reading: Can Good Gut Bacteria Protect Against Food Allergies? »