Category Archives: Allergic Reaction

Required Reading: Remembering to Read the Label, Even When You’re Comfortable…

Everyone always tells you, never visit the grocery store when you’re hungry. With a rumble in your stomach, everything on the shelves can start to look delicious. From chips, to cookies, to mashed potatoes, you’d buy just about anything to sate the hungry in your stomach. Satisfying your “hangrier” self can be a bit tricky when you have multiple food allergies. A grocery store can suddenly become a library of required reading with a hefty test at the end before you can go home and eat.

With so many labels to read and so much fine print to understand, it’s easy to get complacent and glance over ingredients with glazed eyes. Sometimes we can become too comfortable when it comes to brands or foods we’ve known and used for some time. My thought process in a store has bounced between, “it’s always been safe,” or “I’ve never had an issue with their other products,” and regrettably even, “this looks good I’ll read it later.” I’ve been guilty of making the mistake of throwing a commonly used brand product into my basket without reading the label, assuming it will be fine. However, a recent experience with a familiar brand taught me to take the few extra seconds no matter how busy I am, and always read the ingredients no matter what.

A crumbling experience: There is a brand of crackers I’ve trusted for as long as I can remember. Normally when I go grocery shopping I read every boxed or canned item I put in my basket. This routine started by my mom who would let me read ingredient labels after her and would quiz me about what’s safe, what isn’t and why. But that day, for a myriad of reasons and silly excuses I grabbed a box of crackers, a new flavour that looked good and put it in my basket. I went on my way busily preparing for a potluck the next day. For some reason, I didn’t even think twice about reading the ingredients for the crackers in my basket. I assumed, like all other flavours from the brand, that it was safe, and you know what they say when you assume… I got the other items to make a yummy dip to pair with my box of crackers and went on my way.

It wasn’t until the next day when I was plating the crackers, mere minutes before my guest arrived that I noticed something odd about these crackers. On the outside, they seemed fine but once cracked open there were seeds, sesame seeds to be exact, something I am allergic to and something that had never been on or in this brand of crackers before. I was dumbfounded and frankly disappointed with myself for not reading the ingredients list beforehand. After that night, and narrowly avoiding a reaction, I promised myself no matter how comfortable or familiar, I will always read every label and ingredient before I buy anything.

I was able to avoid a reaction that night but found myself wondering how many times I may have put myself at risk in the past because I forgot to read ingredients or was overly comfortable with a brand. As we get older, day-to-day errands can be overwhelming and sometimes reading every label in the grocery store can seem like a task you seriously just don’t want to do. When you’re stressed and hungry, you want to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible. Even when we’re in a hurry though, it’s important to take an extra 10 seconds and read labels to ensure the foods you’re buying are safe. I always try and think of it along the same lines as the precautions I would take when dining out. I would personally never eat anywhere without researching, calling ahead and always ensuring the kitchen is aware and capable to handle cross-contamination. The same rules and precautions should be applied to our kitchens and shopping experiences.

As an allergy community we’re always looking for new and safe brands to add to our pantries. If we take the time, do some research and find safe products, we’ll have a better, and safer cooking experience. Creating culinary treats can challenge us to experiment in the kitchen in the best ways, so don’t let a little label reading stop you from cooking up a delicious meal.

Bon appetit!

– Arianne K.

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Guest Post: The Time I was Diagnosed with Oral Allergy Syndrome

When I was 8 years old, I was at a family get-together and fruit was being served. I was happy to see watermelon on the large platter, as it was my favourite fruit. I grabbed a piece and took a bite. Suddenly I noticed something didn’t seem right. Something didn’t feel right. My lips started to burn and itch, something I had never experienced while eating watermelon, or any food for that matter. After a few minutes, the tingling feeling didn’t subside, but rather increased. I went to the washroom and saw that my lips had a red rim around them and were starting to swell. When I returned to my mom and told her what had happened after eating the watermelon, she (like me) was confused. She proposed that it could be an allergic reaction, but to a fruit? It didn’t seem to make any sense. The following day, she called the allergist and booked an appointment to speak about what had happened.

And like my mom thought, my allergist suspected it was an allergic reaction. To confirm our suspicions, he administered a skin-prick test to check for any reactions to seasonal and environmental allergies. I was told I needed to wait a while for the test to be complete, but a few pricks on my arms were extremely itchy and red. Upon completion, he explained that I was reacting the most to birch and ragweed pollen.

My allergist began reading out a list of fruits and vegetables asking if I had experienced this sort if feeling to any of them in the past. When I told him I didn’t think so, he told me that it is very likely that one day I’ll develop sensitivities to them as well. He explained to me that it was likely that I had Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS), which is also known as Pollen-Food Syndrome. This type of food allergy is quite different, as certain foods are related to the environment and specific pollens. He helped me understand that it is like mild food intolerances that affect your mouth and oral region. What’s interesting about OAS in my case, is that I can eat the cooked version of some of the raw fruits and vegetables that I’m allergic to. This is because the heating process destroys the proteins, making the immune system no longer recognize the food (Source: http://foodallergycanada.ca/2018/04/research-april-2018/). Though people with OAS usually have a mild reaction, it can however, though very unlikely, become anaphylactic, so I carry an EpiPen® with me every day just in case of an emergency.

Since the day I first experienced an allergic reaction, over 10 years ago, like my allergist anticipated, I have developed many more allergies to fruits and vegetables that are within the birch and ragweed oral allergy families. I have learned through my experiences to strictly avoid any foods that bother me. What’s interesting to me is that after speaking to others about this syndrome, many people are shocked to learn about the possibility of being allergic to something other than the most common food allergens. Even as someone who is living with this syndrome, I truly believe that the conversation around it is lacking in the greater conversation of food allergy awareness. I hope my story begins to shed light on OAS so that others may learn and understand what this type of allergy entails. If you also have OAS, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

– Simone D.

Non-Medical Ways for Dealing with Pollen Allergies

Spring is in the air – but so is pollen. Many of my food allergies are related to my pollen allergies, and so in years past I’ve simply avoided the outdoors once the trees start blooming.

This year, however, I’m training and fundraising for the Paramedic Ride (www.paramedicride.ca), and so I have been biking outdoors A LOT. My allergist and I have been tweaking my medications to make this more possible, but I also have a few other non-medical options that I use to cope.

  • Rinse: Similar to a Netipot©, saline sinus rinses let you squeeze saline up your nose, through your sinuses, and back out. So gross, yet so satisfying when you’re sick, and very helpful during pollen season.
  • Cool: Cold, damp cloths are so soothing on the eyes. I listen to podcasts or sleep while I’m doing it and just let it soak in. My niece’s strategy is to hold a cloth on one eye, and read with the other, then switches.
  • Shower: When the pollen gets sticky, more frequent showers can be helpful! I also find showers to be soothing on the lungs.

As with any other treatment, find things that work for you, and check with your medical professionals before you try something new.

What techniques do you use to cope with pollen, and get yourself outdoors?

– Janice H.

Exploring What Not to Do During a Reaction

“Hey guys, can you help me figure something out?”

Four of my friends were sitting at the kitchen table and looked up from the card game to give me quizzical glances before returning their attention to the cards in their hands. Between the drinks, cigars, and fun we were having it was hard to get their attention.

“OK, let me be more clear” I said as I lifted up my t-shirt. This of course got their attention as they wondered what the heck I was going on about. “Do these look like hives on my chest?”

I’d been deliberating this very question over the past 45 minutes or so. I had a huge rash and was concerned as I’d experienced a couple anaphylactic reactions in the past.

The questioning looks from the group became concerned and sober in a flash. Suddenly everyone was deliberating like a group of experts trying to unravel a political controversy.

“Well, your skin is red but I think hives would be more raised.”

“It’s definitely hives, what else could it be?”

“It can’t be hives, we weren’t even eating!”

After a few minutes, and a clear progression of a red rash across my chest, we decided it would be prudent to act, just in case. This moment is where I think we all collectively made our biggest mistake. This is a moment I’d like to draw your attention to, because I’ve been here more than once, and I’ve messed it up more than once as well. In this moment we decided that I was probably having an allergic reaction, but we failed to act in any meaningful way.

In a panic we quickly tried to figure out who was able to drive to a hospital. This was a short conversation:

“Well, I’m drunk and I’m having the reaction, I can’t drive”

“I’m drunk too”

“Me too”

“Dammit”

And that was that. Here we decided to take a different tactic and call a nurse hotline, the kind you call to figure out if you should go to a doctor when you have a cough. The nurse seemed shocked and frustrated that I was even speaking with her.

“Take your auto-injector and get in a bloody ambulance! What the heck are you waiting for?” She even patched me through to the emergency 9-1-1 line.

By now we’d wasted close to 15 minutes on top of the 45 minutes I wasted keeping the hives to myself. This is critical time when a life-threatening reaction is upon you. This is the moment when we got the train back on track so to speak.

While one of the guys spoke to the ambulance dispatcher I took a dose from my auto-injector. My legs began to shake dramatically but it was a fair trade as my symptoms began to stabilize a little as well. This is what I should have done an hour before when I first noticed the hives. It’s also what I should have done when my friends correctly identified my hives.

We were staying at a cottage in the Muskoka area in Ontario, so the ambulance took nearly an hour to arrive. Even then the paramedics told us that they would normally have been much longer but random chance had them driving from a different district at exactly the right moment to pull onto a highway and come to us. For those keeping track this means about 2 hours passed between the appearance of my symptoms and the arrival of medical intervention.

In the end I made it to the hospital and lived to tell the story. But to be sure it is luck that allowed this, not my response.

Like many others before me, I wasted so much time deciding whether I was in danger that I, in fact, put myself in much greater danger. An important detail that I have so far left out is that this was my bachelor party! Imagine what my wife said to me when I relayed this story! You can bet it was quite the tongue lashing I received.

The moral of this story is simple: Don’t waste time.

By the time we called an ambulance I’d known about my reaction for over an hour. First, I tried to keep it to myself so that I didn’t ruin the party. Then we collectively tried to convince ourselves that everything would be just fine as it was. Finally, we made the right decision, but only after a tele-scolding from a nurse.

Like me, if you experience an allergic reaction, you are likely to experience denial. But unlike me you now have an opportunity to learn from my mistake before it happens to you. It may feel wrong at the time but the best thing you can do to save a party is come clean and deal with the reaction and ask others for help. It may feel like a bummer but imagine how your friends will feel if you wait until the reaction is much worse.

You can be smarter than I was. Prepare now for that ultimate decision, that way if it happens to you then you can act swiftly. Know the symptoms of a reaction and decide right now how you will act if you notice them.

Trust me, the party is more fun with you alive and well!

– Jason B.

Learning to Accept my Allergies as an Adult

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop with my parents, enjoying a peach juice and a sprinkle donut. Or an iced tea and a bagel. Or my personal favourite: a milk and an oat cake. Whatever the occasion, our trips always involved a delicious, warm, baked good– one made with wheat, of course.

Whenever I had an important decision to make, my parents would, and still do, take me out for coffee. From applying for University, accepting my first job offer, and now planning my wedding, all of my most meaningful life decisions have been made over a cup of coffee and a treat.  But all that got a little more complicated recently.

I was diagnosed with a severe wheat allergy at the age of 30 after an anaphylactic reaction sent me to the hospital during a wintry run. After living with this allergy for three years, and having a second allergic reaction just a few weeks ago, I have been forced to redefine my identity and my relationship with food. What does it mean when I can’t eat the same food as my family and friends around the dinner table? How does it feel when I have to refuse a piece of cake at a birthday party or a treat at work for the hundredth time?

To be honest, it’s hard and I am still learning to accept that this allergy is something I will have for the rest of my life. Adjusting to a severe allergy as an adult isn’t easy. After my first reaction three years ago, I thought maybe it was just a fluke, despite my allergy tests showing a strong reaction to wheat. After my second reaction just a few weeks ago, a result of being served a contaminated dish while eating out, my allergy is literally all I think about.

I don’t often mention the ways that having an allergy has changed my life, beyond just having to say no to foods containing wheat. It’s changed the way I am able to enjoy food with my family at home, out in social settings with my friends, and most of all, the way we cook at home. To be honest, I can’t remember the last family function we had where I was able to just eat the same thing as everyone else. Coming from a large, traditional Italian family, most of our staples like pasta, pizza, paninis and most desserts are foods that I’ve either had to modify, or just stop eating. Wheat-free pasta is fairly simple to find, but a wheat-free cannoli is something I’ve yet to enjoy.

Recently, I attended my sister’s wedding and her gorgeous, three-tier banana chocolate chip wedding cake with fondant icing (my favourite) was completely off-limits for me, and to be honest, it made me a little sad. Not to mention the cheese tortellini with mushroom cream sauce and all the appetizers. Her venue was incredibly accommodating and made me a completely wheat-free meal, that was delicious by the way, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a bit left out or disappointed that I couldn’t enjoy everything that was on her beautifully curated menu.

With my own wedding coming up, it makes me kind of sad to think that I will have to have a “special meal” different from what my guests are eating. While I know that serving the Italian staples are a must, I just hope that whichever venue we choose will do their best to create similar dishes for me that don’t make me feel left out of my own big day. More on wedding planning with an allergy coming up in my next blog!

I know that accepting my allergy, and making safe food choices, even if that means feeling left out sometimes, is something that I have to accept. I also know that many restaurants and bakeries are targeted towards wheat-free living and even offer full menus that are completely wheat-free. Luckily, I live in Toronto where places like this are never too far. These days, our weekend trips to Tim Horton’s have been replaced by a stop at our favourite gluten-free bakery around the corner from our condo. While they don’t serve old-fashioned glazed donuts, they do make a mean lemon poppy seed muffin.

-Jenna

Note to Self: Trust Yourself More. Note to Everyone Else: Trust Me Less!

Trust isn’t something that comes easily for those of us with food allergies. Once diagnosed with a severe food allergy, you learn to avoid your allergens at all costs. Ideally, we live with a certain amount of healthy paranoia- because if we’re not paying attention to what we’re eating and what else it has touched… then it’s possible we might accidentally ingest what we don’t intend. Sometimes at parties I feel like Gollum, hovering over the place setting that I just painstakingly re-washed and set with my food… Mine… My precioussssss!

The problem is that while I need that self-doubt around my food… I don’t need it when I’m actually having a serious reaction. One would expect that, having had well over a dozen serious allergic reactions in my adult life thus far, I’d be completely comfortable and confident in knowing what exactly is going on. Yet half the time, I doubt myself. I ignore my symptoms and pretend like nothing’s wrong in spite of feeling absolutely horrid.

I think that tendency to want to ignore my body might very well be encoded into my DNA… My paternal grandmother wrote in her diary that on a day she felt sick, she *only* made three shirts before breakfast. My mom realized a few years back that she was able to ignore her pain so well that it caused nausea. After I broke my back, I started to notice that my colleagues who knew me well would ask me if I was feeling alright about 30 minutes before I noticed the agony I was in. I suppose that has translated into my food allergies as well- I’ll notice that I’m itchy and hot, of course, but I make any excuse to classify that symptom as something normal. I don’t want to admit a reaction to myself until I can’t stop itching, or I start having difficulty breathing, or I find myself camped out in the bathroom. I NEED to learn to trust myself more. I know the signs and symptoms of a reaction. I just need to learn to touch base with myself and have the courage to admit (and accept) what’s going on!

On the flip side… I need you to trust me less. During most of my severe allergic reactions, I’ve been a complete and total idiot. I think it’s actually part of the reaction, but I just stop thinking rationally. This can look like strange behaviours on my part, like not calling for help on the work two-way radio after an asthma attack had me collapsing on the floor… or ignoring the EpiPen® in my waist belt to go and find a different one upstairs before actually following medical advice to administer it. It’s like I’m watching from far away. I know it’s illogical and dangerous behaviour, but I’m not usually able to counteract it.

So when I DO come to you and admit I’m having a reaction, or when you notice I’m behaving very oddly… I need you to doubt me. If I’m curled up in a ball, refusing to answer questions, or just saying “I don’t know” repeatedly when you ask if I’m alright? Those are REALLY good clues that I need your help. Ask clear, yes or no questions, and point out my symptoms to me. If I finally admit in a quiet voice that yes, I think I need to be checked out? That’s your cue to call 9-1-1 and get me checked out! It’s never a convenient time to go to the hospital, so you can expect that I will be hesitant. I might be trying to talk myself out of it even as I struggle to breathe, so take a deep breath. Be courageous. Be ready to help me give myself the auto-injector if I need it. Honestly, it doesn’t hurt and it really does make me feel better almost instantly!

Then again, if I’m rationally able to articulate why I don’t think this is a serious reaction, I’m probably fine, and you won’t need to chase me down the street with an auto-injector! (That’s my brother-in-law’s standard question to help figure out if my reaction is mild or not: “Should I chase you with your EpiPen®?” LOL yikes.)

– Janice H.

That Time my Friends Realized the Seriousness of my Food Allergies

One summer afternoon a few years back, my family and I were invited to our family friend’s house for one of our many summer barbeques. I especially love going to their place because they are amazing hostesses, and I always feel comfortable eating at their house. Teresa, the mother, always goes the extra mile to make sure I can eat all the food she prepares and that I’m not missing out on anything – even the dessert!

One of the many side dishes was a delicious summery looking salad which included mixed greens, fruit, and dried cranberries. I always get excited to eat an ingredient-rich salad that’s safe for me, since I typically don’t order salads when eating out due too potential cross-contamination with tree nuts. Toward the end of eating my delicious plate of food I began to feel something in my throat that I have never felt before. My throat felt like something was scratching it, as if a piece of something was stuck. My family and friends immediately noticed that I was repeatedly coughing and attended to me, watching my every move, ready to use my EpiPen®. I explained what I was feeling and we all began to look at the plates in front of us. Teresa, who prepared the salad, immediately ran to the pantry to grab the package of cranberries she included in the salad. We read the ingredients and that was it. It said may contain traces of tree nuts. Luckily, I wasn’t having difficulty breathing, I didn’t have hives, and I wasn’t feeling any other symptoms. My symptoms did not progress over the next few minutes, and I felt back to normal after about ten minutes. This was a scenario where I should have used my EpiPen®, but looking back I realize how difficult it is to decide in the midst of a reaction.

This was a moment of realization for all of us. The scared and worried look on my friends’ faces said it all. They couldn’t believe that as much as a tiny particle of my allergen, a trace amount, caused me to have a reaction. Teresa was so shocked that she forgot to check the ingredients on the package, since she is always sure to never use bulk ingredients when she cooks for me. Accidents happen and this was a lesson for all of us.

Fortunately, this was the only reaction I have experienced after the initial reaction I had when I was two years old and I have never had to use my EpiPen®. Not only was it a moment of realization for my friends, but it was also a reminder for me to always triple check the ingredients of the food I’m eating no matter who is serving it to me.

– Michelle D.