When I was 2 years old, I went into anaphylactic shock after eating a cashew. All I remember from that night was a feeling of helplessness and uncertainty, small glimpses of flashing lights, and a brief recollection of the inside of an ambulance. My parents, however, remember all too well seeing their young son struggling to breathe and the pain and unknowing fright in his innocent blue eyes. They themselves scrambling to do anything in their power to make him okay. At the same time, having the scary reality in the back of their minds that his life could be ticking away. That life or death could be in the hands of the paramedics speeding their way through the stormy winter night.
I survived, and we discovered I had severe food allergies. It changed my life forever and has become a part of every decision I make. Today I am allergic to tree nuts, sunflower, and flax. For those of you who know me and read that second allergy, yes I am probably one of the only baseball players who can’t chew/spit sunflower seeds.
My intent with this article is not for anyone to feel pity or to feel sorry for either me or anyone else with food allergies. Rather, I want this article to give everyone a greater understanding of what it means to have food allergies. I also think it’s important to know how to make day to day life a little easier for those who do have allergies, and what you can do as a bystander if someone around you was to ever have a reaction.
According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), food allergies affect up to 15 million Americans, and of those 15 million, it is estimated that roughly 5.9 million are children (roughly 2 per the average classroom). According to school nurse Kimberly Wolph, of the roughly 820 students at Oyster River High School, plus the 30-50 kids in the PEP program, there are approximately 80 individuals with food allergies, although there are others with food sensitivities. This means that the chances are high that on any given day, you will interact with someone with a food allergy at ORHS.
It is also important to note that this article is about food allergies specifically and will focus less on food sensitivities. A food sensitivity is typically when a person has difficulty digesting a certain food. Lactose intolerance and gluten sensitivity are among the most common sensitivities.
FARE reports more than 170 different foods to have caused allergic reactions. The most common are milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish.
Maddy Alphonse (‘19) is allergic to dairy. She, like many food allergenic kids, found out by eating something that was fed to her by a family member. In Alphonse’s case, when she was 9 months old on a family vacation, her parents fed her frozen yogurt to keep her cool on a hot day. Alphonse broke out in hives and began crying each time she ate it.
Her parents, who initially thought their child’s reactions could be just a result of the cool snack causing an upset stomach, maybe an intolerance, soon realized it was much more. The hives on their daughter made it clear that her reaction to the food was much more intense. After testing upon returning from their trip, it was determined that Alphonse was allergic to dairy.
Like Alphonse, I found out about my tree nut allergy by eating one given to me at a young age by a parent who had no idea of the looming consequences in store from feeding me one. The same scenario was the case when I found out my body doesn’t have an affinity for sunflower or flax. This time after eating a granola bar containing both and going to the hospital with an itchy tongue and hives.
Allergic reactions to food affect everyone who has one differently and may depend on the severity of the allergy, and how your body deals with the allergen. The most harmful being anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can result in coma or death.
|Signs and symptoms
of a non-anaphylactic reaction
|Signs and symptoms
of an anaphylactic reaction
Signs and Symptoms courtesy of themayoclinic.org
For each of my allergies, the reactions are a little different. Contact without ingestion would cause itchiness and hives. With ingestion sunflower and flax will cause many of the symptoms seen on the top half of the non-anaphylactic side. Tree nuts however, if ingested will cause most of the symptoms on the right side.
“I’ve had a lot of little reactions, and four major reactions which have sent me to the hospital,” says Alphonse. For Alphonse, minor reactions causes itchiness and her breaking out in hives. Major reactions though, cause her to go into an anaphylactic shock where she struggles to breathe and her face will swell.
If you notice someone having symptoms from the left side of the chart, it is important to check on the person, see what their reaction(s) may be, and then to get help. For these symptoms, although they may be scary and while still important to get help, reactions listed on the left side are not usually life threatening. The person will be given benadryl or another form of medicine to counteract the reaction, and then will be monitored while the reaction slowly wears off.
However, if you see someone having a severe reaction from the right side of the chart, such as anaphylaxis, it is vital that 911 is called immediately and the person is given emergency epinephrine.
Wolph detailed the importance of calling 911 after administering epinephrine to someone who is having a severe reaction. “Like a bee-sting, that allergen is still there, so if you’re on your way to the hospital, they may need to administer more.” She explains that a typical dose will last around 20 minutes, and some sort of relief for the person undergoing the reaction will be felt in under five minutes.
Epinephrine comes from an EpiPen. It is more commonly known as adrenaline, which helps the body to deal with a reaction in a time of stress. It is a fast acting single dose that improves breathing, stimulates the heart, raises a dropping blood pressure, reduces hives, and reduces swelling. A typical Mylan EpiPen is injected into the outer thigh and held there for ten seconds so the epinephrine can enter the bloodstream. More information on specifics of how to use an EpiPen can be found online at https://www.epipen.ca/en/about-epipen/how-to-use.
People with food allergies must keep a close eye on what they are putting into their bodies. They will ask questions about food around them, and distance themselves from potentially harmful allergens.
“Day to day, I have to be really careful about what I’m eating as well as what people around me are eating,” says Alphonse.
Personally I have a very strong understanding of what I can and cannot have, and I will stay away from food that would cause me problems.
One of the biggest challenges for people with food allergies is eating out at restaurants. A struggle that many without food allergies or dietary restrictions may not understand. Navigating the menu for a meal revolves both around what looks good, and what is safe to eat. Upon ordering, those with food allergies oftentimes will need to inform their sever of the allergy so they can notify the cooks to prevent contact with an allergen or cross contamination.
“You try to be careful but ultimately there’s nothing really that you can do,” says Alphonse about waiting for the food to come out, hoping it will be safe to eat.
As much as I hate asking the server a question about my allergy, I know it is the safe and smart thing to do. “I don’t like doing it, but I definitely have to,” Alphonse says of informing a server of her allergy.
“Sometimes they’ll even ask questions for me when I don’t want to, which is really nice,” says Alphonse of her friends.
Food allergies aren’t all bad. Maybe the allergies themselves are bad, but what comes from them can be beneficial. A greater appreciation, or a heightened understanding of an aspect of food that people without allergies maybe wouldn’t quite understand.
I, like most people with allergies, am very diligent and a “proficient with distinction” food label reader. I am forced to watch out for harmful ingredients, my eyes are trained to find the words associated with my allergy, but in turn, this also makes me aware of everything I am putting into my body, a very beneficial skill.
“I’m definitely more outspoken because of it, just because from a young age I’ve had to advocate for myself,” says Alphonse. “I have become very good at reading food labels and asking a lot of questions.”
Laurel Gordon (‘19), a friend of Alphonse since they were three, says that through her friendship with Maddy, her, “eyes have been opened to what you have to do in order to stay healthy.” Gordon who now works with food for her job, credits much of her carefulness towards the handling of customers with food allergies to her friendship with Alphonse.
Food allergies strengthen the bonds of friendships. I have a very close group of friends, and they all know exactly what I am allergic to, and they make a point to keep me sheltered from those foods. When we get food, they always make sure that is safe for me. If there is someone eating something near me that I am allergic to, one of them will step in between me and that person.
It is a very reassuring feeling, having friends who always have your back. For myself and many others, those bonds with friends who are just as careful about my allergy as I am makes a world of difference.
Finally, the best ways to create a safer society for those with allergies.
Be a friend to everyone. What I mean by that, in the context of food allergies, is watch out for other people. One of the best ways to prevent possible incidents for those with allergies, is to clean up after you eat. Wiping down the spot where you ate can greatly reduce the chances of someone with allergies coming into contact with a possible allergen.
Be cautious. If you’re eating something next to someone you may not be familiar with, especially one of the more common allergens, simply ask the person if they’re allergic to that food before eating it. Do your best to eliminate the unknown. It is better to be safe then to be sorry.
Be understanding of the challenges that food allergies can create. Understand what you can do if someone was to have an allergic reaction. Keep and open mind and be empathetic towards others with or without allergies.
If you yourself don’t have allergies, chances are you know someone who does. The best way to create a safer community around food allergies is by being aware.