Julie Bowen was on the set of the television show "Boston Legal" four years ago when she got the call from her husband, who was on his way to the hospital with their then-infant son Oliver.
While hanging out in the backyard of their California home, Oliver's neck and face suddenly began to swell. Emergency room doctors treated him for anaphylaxis — a life-threatening allergic reaction to foods and other things in the environment. Peanut butter or a bee sting was probably the culprit in Oliver's case, said Bowen, best known for her role as a neurotic mom on the television show "Modern Family."
The incident had a profound affect on Bowen and her family, and it has turned the Baltimore native into an advocate for more education about the disorder.
She has joined the campaign Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis to teach schoolchildren about the disorder. As a part of the initiative, the Emmy-winning actress has recorded a video that can be viewed on the organization's website
Also as part of the campaign, a traveling exhibit will stop at Arundel Mills on Oct. 25. The exhibit will include a 120-square-foot mural and interactive features shoppers can activate with their smartphones to learn more about anaphylaxis.
Children and adolescents are most at risk for the ailment, and food allergies are the most common cause. Cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat are some of the foods most likely to trigger an allergic reaction.
Insect stings, some medications and latex are also common triggers.
Children are particularly vulnerable at school, where they may come into contact with foods that can bring on allergy symptoms. While schools have become more proactive, Bowen and others said making students aware of the disease can help prevent allergic reactions.
"Oliver has become our best advocate," Bowen said of her son, now 5 years old. "He knows if there's a new food or cereal bar to take it to [a] camp counselor to check the ingredients. He is very aware of what he eats."
Teachers and administrators also need to know the symptoms and treatment options so they can help a child who suddenly becomes sick.
Bowen said she had never heard of anaphylaxis before her son's episode.
"The word was long and sounded Greek, and none of us really knew what it was," she said.
Anaphylaxis is caused when antibodies, which fight off viruses, bacteria and other harmful invaders, start to see certain foods and other triggers as the enemy as well.
Those who suffer an allergic reaction can show a wide range of symptoms, including dizziness, headaches, weak pulse, nausea, skin rash, hives and swelling of the lips or tongue. In the worst cases, people die.
The disorder is treated with epinephrine, a naturally occurring hormone. The drug constricts blood vessels, which increases the heart rate and blood pressure.
Like Oliver, many people don't know they have severe allergies until they have an attack.
At Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, many people find out they have the disorder after they land in the emergency room.
"Sometimes the symptoms can come very quickly after the person comes in contact with a trigger," said Dr. Joanne Lanzo, director of pediatric medicine at Sinai. 'I think the most important thing for people to do is to learn the symptoms so they know when they're coming."
In Bowen's case, Oliver had eaten peanut butter before with no complications. Doctors said this is not unusual.
"Sometimes that initial exposure is what can cause the antibodies to develop," said Dr. Hemant Sharma, associate chief of the division of allergy and immunology at Children's National Medical Center in Washington. "They may not have the reaction until the second or third time they come into contact with the trigger."
Doctors are seeing a growing number of patients who suffer from anaphylaxis. Some studies are looking whether the increased use of antiseptic soap may be a part of the cause. Children aren't being exposed to infections, and it is shifting their immune systems.
"As someone who cares for children every day who have life-threatening allergies, I really hope that we can start a national conversation so that people can learn more about what anaphylaxis is and how to prevent it," Sharma said.
Bowen's son hasn't suffered from any more attacks since that day four years ago. The actress doesn't think they'll ever address the issue on "Modern Family." Allergies and doctor talk are a bit too serious for the comedy show.
But she'll do what she can and use her celebrity to promote a good cause.
"I am lucky to be on 'Modern Family' so people want to hear what I have to say," she said.
Cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans, wheat, insect bites, latex
Dizziness, headaches, weak pulse, nausea, skin rash, hives and swelling of the lips or tongue