Left in the dark
As I see my friends and coworkers more concerned every day about which allergens they are about to introduce into their kids’ diet, I can’t help thinking: What about us? What about us adults? Where were all these allergy concerns and talks when we were kids?
Nobody ever told me that I could develop food allergies inadulthood!
Nobody ever told us… my family, my friends, their parents, our neighbors, many of my colleagues, many of you…
Allergies were always talked about as if one were born with them, but I certainly wasn’t born this way! And neither was my uncle, who discovered it the hard way when he had an anaphylactic reaction while out celebrating Valentine’s Day, six years ago.
I clearly grew up at a time when allergies already existed, but not being as widespread as they are today, doctors did not warn us about them, restaurants did not disclose everything that was in their dishes… We were left in the dark! And although we did not live in an allergy-free bubble, we grew up, I grew up, completely oblivious to the fact that allergies can be developed later in life.
That was until it happened to me…
My allergy story!
It started with an egg
I grew up just minutes away from forests and fields, in a small suburban town in France, where every little house came with a little yard and a tall tree that would bloom in the spring. As a child and a teenager, I spent countless hours in the outdoor—the traditional Sunday walk in the woods, school breaks at my grandparents’ house in the countryside, camping and hiking in the summer—without ever experiencing any discomfort due to trees, flowers, or food!
Until I turned 17…
Out of nowhere, my body started rejecting eggs…
Goodbye, soft-boiled eggs and delicious bread-dipping in runny yokes! Goodbye, quick and easy dinner omelets! Goodbye, overdoses of chocolate mousse!
Now, don’t get me wrong… I am one of the lucky ones. I only have an intolerance to eggs (also called food sensitivity), not an allergy, which means that I just get sick after reaching a certain dose. For me, my maximum is half an egg per day. So, it was a bit tricky at first, as I had to adjust my egg intake, but it wasn’t all that bad. I am still able to eat pasta, pastries, and many dishes that contain eggs, but in much smaller quantities than I did as a child or teenager. I did however stop eating any dish where eggs are one of the main ingredients since, to this day, I still haven’t met anyone able to make me an omelet with half an egg. (Feel free to prove me wrong. The challenge is on!)
A few months later, I left my hometown to attend college in Paris. As wewere spending most of our days inside, studying, a few of us decided to start walkingthe 35 minutes home after school, instead of taking the metro. When springarrived and the chestnut trees bloomed all around the Luxembourg Gardens, Istarted experiencing sneezing, coughing, and itchy watery eyes… but this feltso benign that I did not pay much attention to it and just modified my routewhile blooming was at its peak.
Kiwi came third and, although I didn’t know this at the time, it was actually the first sign that I was developing food allergies… seven years before being diagnosed with Oral Allergy Syndrome!
Kiwi was by far my favorite fruit until my sophomore year in college, when a smoothie bar opened just up the street from our school, and thus began my lifelong smoothie obsession… A couple of girls and I made a habit of buying large smoothies at lunchtime and sipping on them while happily strolling down the Quartier Latin streets. The one I liked the most had banana, strawberry, and kiwi. The first time I tried it, nothing happened—or at least that is how I remember it—but then my throat started itching, and it got itchier and more uncomfortable every time I ordered another kiwi smoothie… until I eventually gave up and started ordering other recipes.
I never put two and two together, never connected the eggs, chestnut treesin bloom, and kiwi… I just avoided them as a rule to avoid any furtherdiscomfort.
But the story wasn’t over…
Milk, grapefruit (in beauty products only), honeysuckle, the infamous peach in 2013 thatled to my first trip to the allergist and my oral allergy syndrome diagnosis,and under the same syndrome: nectarines, apples, honeydew melon, cherries, andplums…
Nowadays, I take daily medication for allergies and asthma, wear a medical bracelet, and walk around with a pocket-size epinephrine injection and an inhaler in my purse at all times. And I wish I had known…
I wish I had known earlier that this might happen, so I could have prepared myself instead of disregarding my symptoms until my first anaphylactic reaction, and then frantically trying everything I could think of so I wouldn’t die while completely clueless about what to do.
Steps to Higher Awareness
It is true that, as I write this, much progress has already been made.
Over the past 15 years, especially my last 12 years in the US, I have witnessed a significant effort (and success) to raise awareness on and accommodate food allergies, sensitivities, and dietary restrictions, especially when it comes to shellfish, dairy, gluten, and of course tree nuts and peanuts.
First of all, several governments, including the US government, have made important steps towards the prevention of food-related deaths and accidents inside and outside of our homes. As a start, thanks to new and updated regulations in the US, food products are now much better labeled than when I was a child, and the latest food labeling regulations to be fully implemented by January 2021 should increase the reliability of what we read on food packages. This makes shopping for groceries and cooking much safer for us and our loved ones. The 2011 inclusion of Section 112 “Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Management” in the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act was also a very positive step in acknowledging food allergies as it shifted the previous focus from properly responding to anaphylactic shocks to preventing them, and led to the 2013 elaboration of the Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs, which in turn further expanded awareness and knowledge of such issues in our society.
In addition, restaurants have done their part by increasingly making an effort to ensure their customers’ safety. Many, if not most of them, now offer allergy-friendly options and have designed small icons to indicate which menu items are safe for us to eat. Ten years ago, finding a vegan or gluten-free dish on French and Italian restaurant menus, or any information about what was in the mushroom sauce beside mushrooms, was nearly impossible. Nowadays, if they haven’t already done so at the time of reserving your table, most restaurants will ask you whether you have any known allergy that should be taken into consideration. Before, we had to call ahead of time to see if they would be able and willing to accommodate our allergies.
Concerned citizens have also played an essential role in all this, sharing the knowledge and fighting for increased awareness and action through meetings, petitions, blogs, and phone apps. Whether at home, at work, or at school, in your home town or traveling, it is now much easier to eat safely.
And although banning certain allergens from schools and airplanes for safety is still source of controversy, as to whether bans are essential and efficient or unnecessary and ineffective causing a false sense of security ; I feel that all in all, at least we are now talking about it and made aware, from a very early age, that food can be the source of many issues.
So why did you tell me all this?
This is how you can help!
While today’s kids are much more aware of food allergies and sensitivities than we ever were as children, and will thus be better-prepared adults, the main focus of most campaigns and actions remains on educating parents about food allergies in toddlers and children, and ensuring efficient response and risk prevention for people with already-known allergies. We are unfortunately still talking about allergies as if one were born with them or only developed them at a young age. Therefore, young and older adults around us, and possibly yourself, are still unprepared and at risk of being caught off guard by an anaphylactic shock some day.
Here are a few simple things you could do to help spread awareness and preparedness:
- If you suffer from food allergies, share your allergy story, your tips, and tricks! Don’t let other people in the dark. Be their teacher.
- If you don’t suffer from food allergies, educate yourself ! Make sure you know the difference between food allergy and food intolerance, as well as the symptoms associated with anaphylaxis versus chocking. Although they can look somewhat similar, they are not the same and do not imply the same risks, nor do they require the same restrictions, prevention, treatment, or response.
- Ask around! Be curious! Next time you are with friends, family, or coworkers, and someone mentions their food restriction, ask them about it. When did this start? How hard is it to eat safely and without worrying? Have they already had a bad reaction? You will be surprised by how many people were not born with their allergies or did not develop them as children. Not only will you connect better with this person, others around you will also benefit from this shared knowledge, including some who might not have known much about food allergies.
- Go see an allergist! If you are usually bothered by pollen during allergy season or experience some discomfort when eating certain ingredients, don’t just blindly take antihistamines and auto-medicate. Consult an allergy specialist and get tested! It might be nothing, but as the saying goes… “Better safe than sorry”.
- Find out if there is an epinephrine injector that is easily accessible in case of emergency at your office, and learn how to use it! If there is none, request that your office make one available as part of the First Aid Kit. Just like an AED, we always have one hoping we never have to use it, but it could save someone’s life, even yours. Although this has more to do with responding to anaphylactic reactions rather than educating people about them, by asking your office about epipens, you are opening the discussion and thus raising awareness on food allergies among adults.
- Spread and keep spreading the word! Whether you suffer from them or not, talk about adult-onset allergies! Don’t scare yourself or your loved ones spreading stories of people having anaphylactic shocks while eating their favorite dish, but help increase knowledge of this issue, so that we stop being caught by surprise, but rather have the right reflexes when something like this happens to ourselves or others.
- Share this post to help raise awareness faster and to a larger audience!
Thank you! Gracias! Obrigada! Merci !