For people with food allergies, daily life consists of navigating a minefield of potential hazards. It is not just that we have to avoid eating certain foods, but some people are so highly allergic that breathing the airborne form can have deadly consequences. The top 8 food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, shellfish, and seafood. Here is what it is like to live with a food allergy and how society can help to make life a little bit easier.
Food allergies are caused when a person’s body overreacts to the protein inside of a food item with an immune response. The food is identified by the body as a foreign invader and the body triggers a protective response through the immune system. This is what sets a food allergy apart from a food intolerance. An intolerance does not involve the immune system. Symptoms of an intolerance are usually related to the gastrointestinal system and are dose-dependent, meaning the more you ingest, the worse your symptoms become. Every reaction to a food-intolerance is consistent and non-fatal.
In contrast, food allergies are unpredictable and range from mild to severe. Severe reactions are likely to progress to life-threatening anaphylaxis if not treated promptly with epinephrine. Anaphylaxis causes your immune system to release a flood of chemicals that can cause you to go into shock. Your blood pressure drops suddenly, and your airways narrow, restricting breathing. Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include a rapid and weak pulse, inability to breath, inability to swallow, a skin rash, nausea and vomiting. Anaphylaxis requires an immediate injection of epinephrine and a follow-up trip to an emergency room. If you don't have epinephrine, you need to get to an emergency room immediately. If anaphylaxis isn't treated right away, it can be fatal.
Other symptoms of an allergic reaction may include skin irritation, hives, itching, swelling of the face, lips, tongue and throat, respiratory distress, lightheadedness, and abdominal upset, diarrhea, cramping, and vomiting.
People with a food allergy need to be very careful because a reaction can be triggered by only a trace amount. Food allergy sufferers like myself, have to learn to navigate everyday life by ways such as reading labels on everything we consume, eating primarily home-cooked meals, and calling restaurants ahead to see if they are “allergy-friendly”. Since it only takes a trace to cause a reaction, food allergy sufferers have to be aware of cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can happen when a small amount of a food allergen gets into another food accidentally via shared equipment, lax handling, or when it is present in saliva. This is why a simple kiss could be deadly for someone with a food allergy. HOW SCARY?! This tiny amount of an allergen could cause an allergic reaction.
Things are complicated for someone with a life-threatening allergy in situations that most people without food allergies take for granted. Imagine attending a wedding that includes a buffet-style reception. Not only does a food-allergic person have to opt to not eat if the menu is unknown, but they then have to worry about touching anything at the wedding because they may come into contact with the allergen due to cross-contamination. Also, this person has to be prepared to answer a million questions as to why they are not eating or why they won’t try the cake. Trust me, I know first-hand because I have been in this exact position on multiple occasions. The only safe options in this scenario for people with food allergies is to either not attend, not eat, not touch anything, pack a lunchbox of food, or use a kitchen to prepare your own food. To be honest, the older I get, I am not embarrassed by any of this, but for some, this can make someone feel extremely out of place during events like this.
I believe there is a constant need for food allergy awareness to be spread, so that society knows how to accommodate these allergies. There is a strong need for this to happen because more and more people are developing food allergies. Numbers almost double each year. This is such a significant increase; therefore, people need to know how to accommodate food allergies and support those who have them.
The more I personally interact with other people with food allergies, a common complaint I hear is that people treat them like their allergy is just a “preference”. I also have experienced this before. My friend once told me that she is often compared to a vegetarian. Sure, a vegetarian chooses to avoid certain foods for personally good reason, but a person’s life with a food allergy is in danger because of certain foods. If someone expresses to you that they are allergic to something and they feel nervous or uncomfortable trying a new restaurant or a new food you made, a way you can help is to not treat them as though they are overreacting, instead, be considerate and understanding that it is not coming from a place of spite or rudeness. It is coming from a place of fear. Think of trying a new food through the perspective of someone with a life-threatening allergy. It is like asking us to stand on thin ice and risk falling through. An example of a way society can show compassion and understanding is to simply eliminate a friend’s allergen at a dinner party they are throwing. If they are a friend, this shouldn’t be difficult to do. What is more important? Your peanut butter pie or your friend’s life?
Another significant way to help is by learning more about allergies. I strongly encourage anyone who reads this, especially those of you who know someone with a food allergy, to learn about the severity of food allergies, know the signs and symptoms, and know exactly how to respond in the case of an emergency. Ask my friends and family members, some of them have been trained to use my epi-pen so that if something ever happens, I can count on them to save my life. Knowing that my friends and family members have my back, brings me comfort. Those who experience anaphylaxis may not always have the ability to treat themselves.
Please feel free to share this and take the first step in supporting those with life-threatening food allergies. Food should never be more important than a person’s life. There are simple changes that society can make to show support and kindness to the food allergy community. I recommend navigating the nonprofit organization F.A.R.E. (Food Allergy Research and Education) website to learn more. If you would like to speak to me more about life with a food allergy and discover ways to achieve proper nutrition while also knowing how to navigate the food industry, contact me, the Wellness Director at Jones Physical Therapy. I know first-hand how to help people just like you.
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