Friday, April 5, 2013

Author Question: Death by Food Allergy

Sally asks:

My villain is going to kill his wife. She has a severe peanut allergy. My initial plan was for him to put peanut oil in a salad dressing, one that needs to be shaken to combine the oil and other ingredients. He also damages her epi pen. He does this right before he leaves town for business in order to give himself an alibi.

Using Epi Pen
He's a professional athlete so news of his wife's death will make media outlets like ESPN. I want initial news reports to say that it doesn't seem to be foul play, even though it is.

Does that work?

Jordyn Says:

The cause of death would be anaphylaxis. That's how the person would die. Basically, an allergy causes a huge histamine release that can lead to cardiovascular collapse-- difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, increased heart rate (tachycardia.) The reaction can get to the point where it can lead to death.

This is what your character would die from. So-- the ME would be able to determine that the patient had an anaphylactic reaction. How easy it would be to pinpoint the exact cause of the reaction may be harder.

My follow-up question to Sally was: What's to prevent the character from calling 911?

Death by allergic reaction does take a while. There is not set amount of time and my guess is it could be fairly expedient-- perhaps 30 minutes for a person who is highly sensitive.

This is where the setting would come into play. In a city-- the EMS response time should be 2-6 minutes. However, in the country where there may be only volunteer response, it feasibly could take 30 or more minutes.

The photo from this piece comes from a great article about whether or not to use epi pens.

Some free nursing advice for you here today-- if you are a parent or adult and the thought comes to your mind-- "Hmm-- should I use the epi-pen?" Then yes, you should. Don't wait. Don't question it. Give it and either call 911 or go straight to the ER.

The issue with anaphylaxis is that it can spiral to a point where we cannot reverse the reaction and you may die. However, I've not yet seen a person die from giving themselves a single epi injection when perhaps they didn't need it.

We'd rather monitor you alive for several hours than tell your family you'll no longer be with them. 


Sally Bradley has worked for two publishers, writing sales and marketing materials, sorting through the slush pile, and proofreading and editing fiction. She has a BA in English and a love for perfecting novels, whether it's her work or the work of others. A judge in fiction contests, Sally is a member of ACFW, The Christian PEN, and the Christian Editor Network. She runs Bradley Writing and Editing Services from her home outside Kansas City. A mother of three, Sally is married to a pastor who moonlights as a small-town cop.


  1. As an example, I went into anaphylatic shock from an allergic reaction (from something I inhaled) at a state park. Very rural. The folks I was with called the ranger, who was there in about 5-10 minutes. He rushed me to the local ER, which took about 15-20 minutes. (Did you know those green ranger trucks have sirens?) I was in a LOT of distress by the time I got there. I really did think I was about to die, and was a bit stunned that one shot of adrenaline did the trick. They kept me for a bit (until after the shaking stopped), then sent me on my way.

    This was 30+ years ago. Before epi-pens.

  2. Oh. My. Word-- Ramona!

    So we know if you go diving-- you might get hypothermia and the woods gave you an allergic reaction. I'm wondering if we need to put you in a bubble!

  3. I had a severe allergic reaction to a new prescription drug for headaches about 25 years ago. My throat closed up as a friend drove me to the hospital. Fortunately the hospital was about 5-10 minutes from our house and my friend and I had just taken a workshop on meditation. She talked to me like a labor coach, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on my shoulder, and it really helped. But I am so relieved that they now have epi pens because one may have saved my grandson's life when he was given a food he was allergic to at school.

    1. Yes, epi-pens are a true life saver. That's for sure. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Jordyn, thanks so much for your help with this. The one thing I did discover as I did more research is that if the woman has asthma, the reaction becomes much more severe much faster. We're talking five to fifteen minutes before she dies. So, yes, she now has asthma. :)

    1. Sally,

      Thanks for letting me highlight your question. And yes-- severe asthma with an allergic reaction is very dangerous. Nice pick.

  5. One note about peanut oils - most do not cause allergic reactions in those with a peanut allergy. Even if the allergy is severe. This is because commercial peanut oil has been processed to the point that it no longer contains the proteins necessary to trigger a reaction. Consider that many fast food establishments fry in peanut oil (Chik Fil A is one) but they don't need to be avoided. "Gourmet" peanut oil - oil that has been minimally processed, does contain the proteins necessary for anaphylaxis. It would seem very reasonable to me that a gourmet oil would be used in a salad dressing, but it may be an important note to make. Readers familiar with peanut allergies would likely notice this difference.

  6. OK - I know I'm late to the conversation, but I have been thinking about this and had a few other suggestions.

    If you want death to be by peanut, and have no one suspect the death, it should be quite easy. Those with peanut allergies are specifically told to avoid bakeries, hand-dip ice cream parlors, and Chinese restaurants. All are because the risk of cross-contamination is so high. Bakeries use a baking sheet for peanut cookies, then use the same one (without washing) for chocolate chip. Ice cream parlors dip out the peanut butter fudge ice cream, then water rinse the scoop and use it for vanilla. Chinese restaurants make peanut dishes in the same wok used for non-peanut. If you want your character to be above suspicion, have him buy his wife a dozen cookies, dusted with peanut powder on the bottom, for instance, or a hand-dipped quart of her favorite ice cream. Both would leave her with a toxic dose, and him above suspicion

  7. Very interesting information about food allergies. Thanks for sharing!