Category Archives: Allergies and Attitude

12 Reactions in 12 Months: What I Learned from 2016

From the news around the world, 2016 was a challenging year for many people. In my case, I developed more severe food allergies. It was like I’d gotten an extra, unwanted Christmas present that I just couldn’t return. Looking back, however, I can see how 2016 taught me a lot as well. Most of the lessons were learned the hard way… so I’m hoping that by sharing them, you can learn from my mistakes!

1) Take your allergens seriously!

Before 2016, I was prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, but I didn’t always carry it with me. I avoided eating my allergens, but my housemates ate them, cooked with their flours, and I wasn’t at all careful about cross-contamination. If you’ve had allergies for a long time, you know how reckless that was… but being at-risk for anaphylaxis was all so new to me… and it’s hard to change old habits. That said, I wish I’d at least tried to change those habits before I was visiting the ER every 2-3 days in January 2016… I felt so stupid, coming in and explaining that my housemates had cooked with almond flour, and that I hadn’t washed the counter before preparing and eating my food. I have now learned to prepare my defensive strategy before using the kitchen. I have a placemat I use, I wash counters before I cook with them, and I always wash my hands immediately before eating. If I visit a friend, I re-wash dishes before I use them. I don’t trust dishwashers, as some leave caked-on food. My housemates take great care in washing dishes, so at least I can trust the dishes at home. They know that when they don’t wash things carefully… they might get woken up late at night with a surprise trip to the hospital!

2) Epinephrine auto-injectors aren’t painful!

So, I learned this a few years back during my first ever reaction… but I was sufficiently surprised that it bears repeating. Remember the best vaccine you’ve ever been given? Like where you asked if the nurse was going to give it to you and then they told you it was already done? That’s my experience with epinephrine auto-injectors. I freaked out SO MUCH the first time, I sobbed to the 911 operator “I know how to do this, but I can’t do this!!!” You see, I’d taken a decade of first aid courses, and they had told me that auto-injectors can work through jeans… and so I was imagining this giant needle that would hurt a LOT. What I have since realized is that thinking of an auto-injector as big isn’t quite right. It’s actually a very thin gauge of needle. Honestly, none of the 16 or so auto-injectors I’ve had to use have hurt. Blood pressure cuffs inflating, on the other hand, are very painful, especially if you’re texting with the same hand, so make sure to drop your phone and relax if someone’s taking your pressure!

3) Keep your epinephrine auto-injector where you can reach it, and let others know where it is!

In April 2016 I had the scariest reaction of my life. It started mild, as all my reactions do, and the serious symptoms were delayed, as many of my reactions are. Because I have chronic idiopathic hives as well as being at-risk for anaphylaxis, my allergist has given me permission to take over the counter antihistamines when I have specific mild symptoms. My hives went away, but I ignored the fact that I felt weird, and started getting ready for bed. I should have taken the epinephrine then. I took my regular night time medications instead, but as I went to swallow them they got stuck in my throat and I started coughing. Suddenly I couldn’t stop coughing, and all my symptoms came back. Dizziness, nausea, hives, redness, asthma, and I was coughing so hard I had to sit down. Coughing so hard I couldn’t get up to go get my EpiPen® in the belt that was a few meters away. Coughing so hard I couldn’t catch my breath or turn around to get the EpiPen® in the drawer about 2 inches behind me.

Thankfully, I was coughing so hard that I woke my housemates… who came downstairs, called 911, and handed me the EpiPen®. After that, I started keeping 4 epinephrine auto-injectors in the house: there is an EpiPen® next to my pillow, reachable from bed. There’s one in the belt around my waist. There’s one in my purse… and because all three of those are hard to access and easy to move, there is also one that doesn’t ever move, installed on a broom holder next to my door. Every person in the house knows where it is, so that if I react they can run and grab it. I’ve deliberately chosen not to live alone. My allergist and I are also working very hard to try and treat the chronic hives, because of course it is not recommended to take an over the counter antihistamine during a serious reaction!

4) Trust yourself, but don’t let others trust you during a reaction

One common thread during all of my serious reactions thus far? I don’t think straight. I don’t make rational decisions. I routinely ignore that nagging feeling that something is VERY wrong. I start behaving abnormally, illogically, and my answer to questions like “Are you ok? You look like you’re reacting to something” is consistently “I don’t know.” My family, and colleagues have mostly seen my reactions in person now… but it’s still one of the first things I go over if someone new joins our team at work, or if I’m eating out with friends. To give a few examples from 2016:

Near the beginning of January, I actually talked myself, my sister, and the paramedics out of giving me epinephrine… in spite of the fact that I knew something major was going on. To be fair, I was stable, and they were monitoring me… but when I was later triaged through urgent care and started re-reacting more severely, it was difficult to get the nurses’ attention. I did, and things moved very quickly, with epinephrine being administered there. Had I trusted myself in the first place, though, I could have saved myself 4 hours of misery.

The other experience where I was learning to tell others not to trust me during reactions came later. I was at work, and had a major asthma attack to some dry erase spray I was using. I collapsed, but decided against calling for help on my radio. I caught my breath, but when I told one of my colleagues what had just happened I again insisted that I was completely fine. Meanwhile I had developed hives and swelling and nausea but kept ignoring the symptoms and telling my colleagues that I didn’t know whether I was having a mild or severe reaction. Eventually the reaction progressed until I was physically unable to lift my auto-injector. Thankfully a different colleague noticed that I was about to pass out, and took action on my behalf.

My hope and prayer is that you’ll never have to go through those moments, where your logical brain is saying “I’m having a reaction, with the following symptoms, and need immediate medical assistance” but the anxiety added by the reaction results in you hiding the truth from others. You matter. Your reaction will be much more inconvenient the more it progresses. If you are experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, you are not wasting anyone’s time by getting their help. 

5) Cooking from scratch is not impossible

Two years ago, I met with a dietician to talk about how I could improve my diet. Back then I had 13 allergens. I insisted there was no way I could cut out anything further. She gave me some recipes, but I didn’t take a lot of time to try them. I had resigned myself to a fate of relying heavily on other companies to be able to cook for me at the time.

Then came 2016, and suddenly I was hit hard by the new reality of having to make everything from scratch, and even having to call every company about every possible ingredient. There’s a point, while you are waiting for re-testing, where you stop looking at what is unsafe, and you start making a list of safe foods. That was the most positive shift I made. I started making incredibly simple meals from scratch, so that it was easier to list all the ingredients of what I’d eaten that day. It wasn’t an easy shift, as I grieved the things I couldn’t eat and exhausted myself trying to find safe recipes. But it was incredibly encouraging, as each successful meal became a reason to celebrate. Each new safe ingredient source has me jumping with excitement, and I’ve really learned to enjoy cooking.

Cooking from scratch was a huge learning curve, and at first it took 24 hours a week to cook meals… but now my record stands at 5 meals made in 20 minutes (plus I ate one in that time too, and washed dishes). With only 43 things that I can eat, I have become much more willing to try eating things I might not otherwise have tried. That willingness has led to some accidental successes (like roasted kiwi, and candied organic banana peel), and some really epic failures (like grapefruit toffee). I’ve learned not to give up in the kitchen, and I wish I’d learned some of these skills before I had no choice but to use them.

If I can learn these things, however, I’m pretty confident anyone can. I’ve gone from being unable to cook eggs… and regularly “burning” water… to someone who’s made candy, soup, jams, and even some puff pastry. I still have a lot to learn, but YouTube© is an excellent resource… and the benefits of studying how to make your own food far outweigh the inconveniences at times.

All in all, I learned a lot in 2016, and I’m still learning. I suspect I will always be learning more about cooking from scratch, but I hope I can stop learning so much firsthand about reactions! I’m also hoping that by sharing this with you, you’ll save yourself the time of learning them on your own!

Here’s to fewer reactions in 2017!
-Janice H.

My Dream for a Standardized Allergy-Friendly Menu

Cheerful couple with menu in a restaurant making order
Dining out with friends and family is always something I look forward to. Having to worry about my food allergy, however, takes some fun out of it, but it’s something I’ve become accustomed to. I always get a sense of relief when I find a restaurant that is allergy-friendly and has a detailed spreadsheet listing allergen information for their menu items across the board. I often dream about what it would be like if there was a standardized allergy-friendly menu at every restaurant I went to.  Here are a few reasons why a standardized allergy-friendly menu would benefit those of us with food allergies:

It would reduce the anxious feelings that often come with dining out. Having a standardized allergy-friendly menu would eliminate the burden I sometimes feel when discussing and planning a night out with friends. For example, I often find myself saying to them, “sorry, we can’t check out that restaurant because I think there are nuts in many dishes” or “I didn’t feel comfortable there last time.” Also, it would eliminate the constant back-and-forth of asking about ingredient info with the wait and kitchen staff. I would still notify them about my allergies so they know it’s severe, and to be cautious of cross-contamination.

It would make the planning process quicker and easier. Knowing a restaurant has a standardized allergy-friendly menu would eliminate the amount of time I spend researching restaurants before choosing or agreeing to dine there.

menuIt would make me feel more comfortable and safe when dining out. It would show me that the restaurant’s dishes have been dissected to highlight what allergens are within. My hope would be that these recipes would never change, which is another reason why it’s important to still mention your allergies. An allergy-friendly menu doesn’t necessarily mean that the food service staff are completely allergy aware, which is why I would still double check that they have strict kitchen protocols for accommodating allergic diners beyond providing ingredient information.

It would highlight safe options on the menu for my allergies. Having a detailed outline of potential allergens and ingredients for each dish served would not only give me a clear list of safe items, but it would also provide me with options I would have never thought I could have. Knowing I would find a standardized allergy-friendly menu at any restaurant I went to would also allow me to discover restaurants that I never thought I could eat at before.

Fortunately, the restaurant industry in Canada is well aware of the seriousness of food allergies, but there is much room to improve. There are a fair number of food chains that have a standardized menu and provide an allergen information sheet, but it isn’t required across restaurants nation-wide. It would be a dream to be able to check out a new restaurant knowing that when I get there, they would provide me with a menu of safe dining options to leave me worry-free.

– Michelle D.

A Forced First Impression…Food Allergy Style

As a 26 year old, I have had to inform dozens, if not hundreds of people about my allergies thus far in my lifetime. This one story definitely stood out to me ahead of the rest.

Business Team Meeting Seminar Training ConceptI was sitting in a university lecture on the first day of class. It was an elective and there was someone in the class who I didn’t know very well from a different program. She put up her hand to inform the Professor and her fellow colleagues about her allergy to citrus including oranges and bananas. She went on to say that if these food items were brought to class and peeled it would cause her a serious migraine.

I was pretty impressed by how forward she was about her allergies. I generally inform my friends, and people sitting around me should they decide to start munching on one of my allergens. Nonetheless, there was no judgement in her proclamation, but rather I noted what she said and thought the class would carry on normally.

I had a few friends in the class with me and they began to nudge me and whispered the following in my ear, “you should say something about your allergies”, “yeah, you should speak up”. Again, as I previously said, I do try to keep my allergies on a need-to-know basis, especially since we are talking about a lecture hall full of people.

Well, obviously, my professor noticed that there was a bit of a kerfuffle and asked if everything was okay. My response was the following: “Well, I just wanted to add that I also have allergies. I am severely allergic to nuts. I don’t really see it being an issue in class unless someone eats nuts and then makes out with me. So, yeah. Let’s try and avoid that at all costs.”

There was an outbreak of nervous laughter and the professor was stunned. After a brief moment, he thanked me for sharing and carried on with the program. Can you say AWKWARD!? It was quite the way to make a first impression.

– Nicole K.

Explaining my Food Allergy Through Snappy Comebacks

I have a severe allergy to cow’s milk protein and was diagnosed at a very young age. Overall, I find that life with a food allergy isn’t so bad, it’s just who I am. Occasionally, people unfamiliar with allergies have a hard time understanding how I can actually “live without cheese,” which in truth is quite an ironic statement, since eating cheese could actually threaten my life.

Explaining a serious food allergy can be tricky, especially in my case, since lactose intolerance is also common, and often referred to as an “allergy.”

woman in glasses with sensitive toothache painOccasionally, I will get some funny, annoying or just plain strange responses when I explain my allergy, or when I politely decline food. Below are a few examples with my likely response in italics.

“So, you can’t eat it, like, ever?” –As much as I’d love a day off from the threat of anaphylaxis… no I can’t eat it ever.

“How do you find anything to eat?” – There are many foods in the world, I can usually find something.

“Are you sure you can’t just try a little bit?” – Yes I’m sure.

Don’t eat anything! I don’t want to have to call 911!” – Well, me neither.

Do you love eating dairy, even though you’re allergic?” – I can’t eat dairy and considering I spend my time trying NOT to eat it, I definitely don’t love it.

Will you be mad if I eat this in front of you?” – Of course not!

“I feel SO bad for you!!” – Really, it’s fine. I’m okay with not eating a butter tart right now.

But I used organic milk/butter/cheese, maybe it won’t affect you?” – It may be fancy, but I still can’t have it.

While some of these sound a little ignorant, I believe everyone meant well.  Lots of people find my diet interesting and have a lot of questions. And I actually don’t mind discussing it. I think most people with an allergy would agree that living with a life-threatening allergy really is just a way of life. Many people don’t have allergies themselves, or deal with family members with allergies, so it’s true, they really just don’t know what it’s like. I think that in general, if we are honest and open about our allergies, people are quite accepting.

Sometimes I get asked: “Do you wish you weren’t allergic?” Well yes, I wish I could grab a menu and blindly try something new. I wish I could accept my neighbour’s baking without giving her the third degree on ingredients. I wish I could share foods with my kids more. I wish I could kiss my husband after his morning cereal. But, that’s not how it works for me, and that’s the way it is. So my answer is always “yes, I wish I didn’t have to live with allergies, but it’s okay, I’m used to it.”

– Morgan

Valentine’s Day with Food Allergies

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Valentine’s with an allergy?

Well, I got you!

Valentine’s Day is one of the most romantic days of the year. Maybe you and your long-term partner are planning a weekend getaway to relax and enjoy each other’s company or maybe you and your girlfriends are planning on celebrating ‘single ladies’ style. No matter what your relationship status is, you can’t deny that Valentine’s Day is a popular holiday. I didn’t really start celebrating Valentine’s Day until I started dating my boyfriend. I remember being very nervous the first Valentine’s Day we celebrated together because I had actually no idea what I was going to be able to eat. I was so worried that we would get to the restaurant and then be forced to leave because I wouldn’t be able to eat anything. So my advice? Don’t be like me! Be confident and take initiative! Over the last four years of dating my boyfriend, I’ve come up with some tips and tricks to master Valentine’s Day:

Valentines day hearts on wooden backgroundPlan ahead! – Going out for dinner? Think ahead. My boyfriend and I already contacted the manager of the restaurant we are thinking of trying this Valentine’s Day, two weeks in advance. Valentine’s Day itself is a very busy day/night at most restaurants, so don’t contact the restaurant the day of. Contact the restaurant maybe two, three, or even seven days in advance and speak to the manager. The majority of classier restaurants usually also do special “Valentine’s Day” menus and these menus are typically different from their usual menus. Just because you’ve been to a restaurant before does not mean it’s going to be safe for you on Valentine’s Day. The manager will be able to give you the best advice on what is going to be safest for you. Once you get to the restaurant, request to speak to the person you’ve already contacted. I’ve had amazing experiences at The KEG, Baton Rogue, and Copacabana on Valentine’s Day.

Laura Secord – If you’re allergic to peanuts and tree nuts and have never had the opportunity to try Valentine’s Day chocolate in a box because of the enormous amount of nut products in these chocolate filled boxes, Laura Secord has your back. The 100-year-old Canadian chocolate franchise has an assortment of peanut-free and tree nut-free chocolates in both bars and boxes. They even have a special Valentine’s Day nut-free chocolate assortment box. I picked up a box the other day and it was incredibly delicious. Start making hints to your date that you’re craving some delicious Laura Secord nut-free chocolate this Valentine’s Day. Go Canada!

Keep it simple! – There’s honestly no need to go out for dinner to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Keep yourself safe (and save yourself some cash) by inviting your Valentine over to your place this Valentine’s Day. Make an allergen-safe dinner at home together and watch a cool movie. You will not only have a great time, but you and your Valentine will bond by being able to share with him/her your allergen-safe secrets. You (and your wallet) will be grateful that you’re not out on arguably the busiest dining out night of the year.

Don’t make Valentine’s Day revolve around food! – Who said Valentine’s Day had to be associated with food? Celebrate the day with your loved one by doing something or going somewhere that you wouldn’t usually go to; take a trip to Niagara Falls, go skiing, or take out those skates and go to the nearest ice rink. You make your own fun!

The most important piece of advice I can give you is to enroll your loved one. Share with your Valentine your worries and come up with a game plan in advance together. Get asked out on a date and you’re told that the restaurant is a surprise? Immediately take the initiative and share with your date that you have allergies and you’d love to be a part of planning so that you two can find a suitable destination for you. My boyfriend now takes initiative even before I do! It’s not supposed to be a scary or stressful night, so find a way to have fun with it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

– Giulia C.

The Best (and Worst) Food Allergy Jokes

As with most humour, there is the potential to offend your audience. As someone who has lived with anaphylaxis my whole life, I often find comfort in my ability to laugh things off or look at the brighter side in life. I understand wholeheartedly that this is a serious condition with potentially life-threatening consequences. If any of these jokes are distasteful and offensive to you, I apologize. They are, in my opinion, the best (and worst) food allergy jokes out there!

Two happy woman friends laughingDid you hear about the Frenchman who could only count to seven?
-He had a huit allergy

What does an allergic person have in common with bees?
-They both have hives!

Did you hear about the convict who had allergies?
-He broke out

Why didn’t the child with allergies play the board game Clue?
It contained Mustard!

Why did the chicken cross the road?
-To avoid his allergen

What did the night owl say to his pal the early riser?
-I’m allergic to mornings.

Teacher: Where’s your homework?
Student: I’m allergic to homework.

1: Knock, knock.
2: Who’s there?
1: Auntie
2: Ben who?
1: Anti-Histamine

1: Knock, knock.
2: Who’s there?
1: May
2: May who?
1: May contain trace amounts of ‘nuts’

What was the cause of the tech-guru’s most recent seafood reaction?
-Her new shell-phone!

– Nicole K.

A Verbal Stream of Consciousness: My Worst Allergic Reaction

I’ve had two major allergic reactions in my life, well three if you count the initial reaction I had when we discovered my food allergy but I was three years old and I don’t remember it; So let’s rephrase: I’ve had two major reactions in my life that I remember.

My worst reaction had me on the edge of anaphylactic shock if it wasn’t for a handy auto-injector and a thoroughly prepared father. This reaction was to a previously unknown allergen: fish. Fresh water fish to be clear, perch to be precise.

Grilled pikeperch
I couldn’t in my wildest dreams fathom having this allergy. I was around perch a lot as a kid because my family had an annual reunion called “The Fish Fry” where the main dish was – you guessed it: perch. The funny thing is I never ate it, it smelled “gross” to me and I never had any interest. So fast forward a few years in the future to a lazy Saturday dinner. My family was cooking perch and with no other options I decided today was the day I was going to eat perch.

I took a thumbnail sized bite, maybe ever smaller but the second I took that bite I knew immediately something was wrong. From this point on my thought process was more sporadic then a cat chasing after a laser pointer.

Let me break it down for you best I can:

Something is wrong; I need to spit this out, ok now I have to clean out my mouth. I can’t swallow anything, and my lips are swelling. Wait so is my tongue. I need help.

It was at this point my family figured out something was wrong. As mentioned before, my dad sprung into action grabbing an auto-injector and promptly administrating it. My brother called an ambulance, and I sat in the kitchen with my thoughts.

Now those thoughts went into overdrive running off adrenaline and fear.

WHOA! Ok let’s get some medicine to keep it from returning, oh ya I can’t walk, I can’t really breathe, my lips and tongue are swollen- they hurt. I wonder when the ambulance will be here. Ohhh it’s getting better, thanks Epi-Pen®, glad I have you…and extras, oh hey the ambulance, that was quick considering we live in the countryside. Should I bring my purse? I sure hope someone grabs my coat. What are we going to do with the leftover perch?

Now this is where things get a little fuzzy. I remember getting into the ambulance and asking for my brother to come with me, but other than a brief discussion about how my parents would follow us, I don’t remember much. Here are the snippets I do remember in order of importance to me at the time:

  1. I’ve never been in an ambulance before
  2. They’re driving fast.
  3. Where is my purse and coat?
  4. Hey we’re here already.

Main Entrance Of Modern Hospital Building With SignsI’m sure I had plenty more thoughts, but at the time these felt like they were the most important.

After arriving at the hospital, I was seen right away by a doctor who gave me another shot of Epinephrine and hooked me up to some machines to monitor me and to give me medicine if needed, which spoiler alert: I did.

After one tiny piece of perch, almost 18 hours of hospital rooms and IV’s, I left the hospital with a new allergy and a new plan for how to tackle this allergy.

My thought process during my reaction was sporadic, hazy, and random looking back now. I barely had time to figure out what was wrong with me before my symptoms became more than I could bear. My thoughts regarding my reaction afterwards were crystal clear and it’s something that I still think about from time-to-time in no particular order.

 I need to get my allergies checked more often so I know my levels.

 I’m glad I always have an auto-injector with me or around me.

I should always trust my gut, if something doesn’t seem right, or is continuously gross to me or makes me sick, maybe I should stay away from it until I know.

I should continue telling/training people with an auto-injector

Thankfully I have people around me who are trained and can identify an allergic reaction.

I need to trust myself enough to know when I am comfortable and when I am not.

I need to be more comfortable listening to myself, and asking for help.

I love my family for always ensuring my safety.

Our thoughts and inner monologue can sometimes feel like a random strung together process that doesn’t make sense at times. It can seem like an avalanche of ideas ranging from funny, scary, and puzzling that come so fast we can barely keep track. It’s useless to compare your thoughts or ideas to anyone else’s because we’re all unique. However, that should never stop us from expressing ourselves or talking out our feelings and thoughts with others. The best we can do is try and find that little voice of reason and help prepare it with a predetermined list for emergencies so we don’t lose track of what’s important. We have to go with our instincts but also have a plan A, B, C, and Z in case of an accident. We need to trust, forgive, and have faith in ourselves because it is the only way we’ll be comfortable expressing our inner thought processes to others.

– Arianne. K