As a person with food allergies, one of my daily goals is to avoid having an allergic reaction. I need to stay vigilant and take the necessary precautions. However, even after being as careful as I can, sometimes mistakes are made that are out of our control, and things get scary – fast.
I’ve had three allergic reactions in my 20 years of life, and each was its own kind of terrifying. As awful as reactions can be, I think it’s important to reflect on them and try to learn – not just for me, but also hopefully so that others can learn about possible scenarios, too.
My first reaction (after being diagnosed with a peanut and tree nut allergy) happened when I was 5 years old. My friend gave me a delicious-looking cookie as a snack. I’ve had a sweet tooth from a young age and didn’t even think to ask what kind of cookie it was. After a couple of bites, I could tell something was wrong – it didn’t taste like any cookie I’d ever had before.
My heart dropped when I found out it was a peanut butter cookie. Even at 5, I knew how serious eating my allergen could be. I ran to my parents and told them what had happened. By that time my tongue was tingling, my lips were swelling, and I was itchy and scared. Lucky for me, the reaction wasn’t very serious – I threw up, but the reaction got no worse than that. In hindsight, my family knows I should have had my auto-injector for multiple symptoms, and I should have been taken to the hospital. That’s a repeating motif in my reaction stories – a mistake that I hope others do not make.
From this experience I learned what it feels like to have an allergic reaction; the tingling lips and tongue, upset stomach, a sense of overall discomfort. These are signs and symptoms I would never forget, although they would come in variations for my other reactions. It’s important to note that reactions will vary among individuals: know the possible signs and symptoms, but realize that not all will occur for every reaction.
My second reaction happened at an overnight summer camp when I was 16. Our meal that evening was special: takeout Indian food. It had been ordered in previous years for campers with food allergies like me, which is why I felt comfortable eating it. I had confirmed again with the camp director that everything was safe for me to eat. The food was delicious and I ate as much as I could.
About half an hour later, I started to feel sick, mostly in my stomach, but it soon spread to a feeling of overall sickness and I was breaking out in hives all over my skin. I was scared, especially because I was away from home for the longest time in my adolescent life, and one of the worst-possible scenarios I had imagined appeared to be happening to me.
I went to my room to lie down and hoped the symptoms would subside (they didn’t). Lucky for me, my friends who knew I had food allergies called our counselor over to take me to hospital. It was the right decision and as soon as I was admitted to the emergency unit and received a Benadryl IV, I felt better almost immediately.
Again though, I made an error. I should have used my auto-injector as soon as I felt the first symptoms kicking in. But I learned from this experience nonetheless, importantly that there is always an inherent risk involved in eating out. Indian cuisine uses a lot of nut flours and imported ingredients, so I’ve made the decision not to dine out for Indian food again. It’s a small sacrifice that’s more than worth it. I also learned that sometimes the symptoms of a reaction take time to develop; although they can appear instantly, that is not always the case.
My most recent reaction also occurred when I was a teenager away from home, this time on a trip to Toronto for a national scholarship final. I had informed the organizers of my food allergies in advance, and was told that I could be accommodated. The dinner for the finalists was buffet style, and I had eaten two such meals safely earlier in the day. All the dishes were labeled with typed lists of their ingredients, which I read carefully twice before selecting any food. Allergens such as nuts were bolded, making it easier to identify what was safe and what was not.
For dinner, I followed the same procedure and read the ingredients on a rice pilaf that did not list any nuts. As I always do, I also did a visual examination of my food to make sure there weren’t any visible nuts (this had already saved me from a reaction at least twice!). Nothing was visible. However, as soon as I started eating, I realized something was wrong. My lips started to swell up, and I knew I was having an allergic reaction. I was shocked: I had read all the ingredients – what had I done wrong this time?
I went back to the buffet to re-read all the ingredient lists and saw that someone had added two words in pen to the typed ingredient lists – “contains nuts” – on the rice pilaf. My heart dropped. I had taken every precaution, but timing was not on my side that night.
I immediately went with one of my fellow finalists to find someone who could take me to the hospital, where I was treated for an allergic reaction. From this reaction, I learned again that there is always a risk involved in eating out, and that’s why it’s important to have a reaction plan and always carry your auto-injector with you. Again, I made the mistake of not using mine, but should have.
Reflecting on my hesitation towards using my auto-injector, I believe it stems from my reluctance to acknowledge that I was in fact having an allergic reaction; psychologically, I just wanted it all to go away. This was perhaps also influenced by my fear of the needle, which is admittedly silly. Now, as a young adult, I have resolved to use my auto-injector in any situation where I begin to experience the symptoms of an allergic reaction; epinephrine is meant to be used right away, and it can be life-saving. There is no reason not to use it – I carry it with me everywhere I go for a reason.
Reactions are scary experiences; as allergic individuals, we spend our lives trying to avoid them. All of my reactions occurred in situations where someone else was feeding me and, although I took steps to be cautious, they were not enough.
Luckily, most allergic reactions can be safely managed by being prepared: carrying an auto-injector (and using it!), having a reaction plan in place, and seeking immediate medical attention. I’ve learned from my three reactions and I hope you can, too. Stay safe, allergic friends!