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

To Epi or not to Epi? Why I Stupidly Delayed Giving Myself Epinephrine

At the Library

I grew into several life-threatening food allergies when I was 19 years old, and learning to manage these allergies has been challenging. Let me tell you a story. I was spending an afternoon in a local library studying for an upcoming university exam and I decided to refuel at the library café. I ordered an iced cappuccino and after drinking a few sips, I could feel something was wrong. I could feel my throat beginning to swell and I began to feel dizzy. I looked to the café and realized that the same blender that was used to make my cappuccino was also being used to make fruit smoothies. Among the long list of allergies that I grew into are raw fruits and raw vegetables.

I was having another reaction. My throat continued to close, I felt more faint, and I was starting to have trouble breathing.

I grabbed my backpack and took out the medications I bring everywhere with me: antihistamines and my EpiPen®. I took the antihistamines, but I was hesitant to take my EpiPen®. I gathered my things, quickly got to my car, and drove to a nearby hospital. I parked my car in the emergency department (ED) parking lot and waited.

I couldn’t swallow, I was having trouble breathing, and I felt really nauseous. I made a deal with myself: if at any time this reaction gets worse, I’ll take my EpiPen®, and go into the ED.
My symptoms remained unchanged for the next half hour, and
then began to resolve over the next few hours.

Looking back, I was extremely lucky.

Double-dose

Now, another story. I was helping move some furniture at a friend’s house two summers ago. After we finished lifting the last bookcase, his father brought us both a glass of wine. After one sip I felt strange. My typical symptoms occurred (throat swelling, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and extreme nausea) but this time they came on like a freight train. I ran to get my EpiPen® and immediately administered it to the outside of my right thigh. Then I took an antihistamine. We alerted 911 and sat on the couch. Minutes after my first EpiPen®, my throat completely closed off. Even as I write this right now, I become very emotional. Those were some very tense minutes that felt like an eternity. My friend’s father was calmly instructing 911 what was happening, and my friend administered a second EpiPen® to my left leg. I was still gasping for air and my swollen throat would not let any air in. The fire fighters burst through the door. I felt a little air pass into my lungs – the second EpiPen® was working. I am so thankful that I did what I did, and that my friend and his family knew what to do too. They saved my life.

In my first story I didn’t take my EpiPen® and I am well aware how lucky I was in that situation. I have had 12 anaphylactic reactions in the past seven years, and in some circumstances, I chose not to take my EpiPen®. In retrospect, I wish I had used it every time. So, why didn’t I? Here are some common themes that I’ve noticed about my decisions:

  • This one won’t be serious, right?

I have had 12 allergic reactions in the past and most of the time I use my EpiPen®. I have never had what’s called a “biphasic” reaction, I have never needed a breathing tube in the emergency department, I have never been admitted to the hospital for my allergies, and before the reaction at my friend’s house, I have never stopped breathing completely. So, why would I have serious complications during this allergic reaction?

  • Guilt

When I administer my EpiPen®, I call 911, go to the hospital, and receive care from nurses and doctors. Usually, by the time I get to the hospital I am stabilizing, I am able to breathe without difficulty, and the swelling in my throat decreases. In the emergency department I look around and see some really sick patients – elderly patients, infants, and those who are not as fortunate as I to be recovering. I feel very guilty that I am taking up a bed. I don’t deserve this.

  • Costly

The ambulance in Ontario will cost a patient under 65 years-of-age $45, and replacement EpiPens® can cost over $100 if you do not have insurance.

  • Waste of time

After using an EpiPen® and calling 911, patients are routinely kept in the ED for 4 hours to see if they will have a biphasic reaction. This is how long it takes the epinephrine to wear off. So after the reaction, the ride to the hospital, and the ride home, at least 6 hours have gone by and it’s often more time than I can afford to give up.

It’s important to understand the difference between the medications that can help us during an allergic reaction. An EpiPen® contains the medication epinephrine (also called adrenaline). Benadryl® and other over the counter allergy medications are commonly referred to as antihistamines. The medication in Benadryl® is called diphenhydramine. It’s not necessarily useful to remember these long names, but it can be important to understand how these medications work in order to avoid making the mistake that I have made – choosing not to take my EpiPen®. Epinephrine does the job of an antihistamine but it helps in more ways, and it works much faster with stronger effects. It is always the medication of choice for life-threatening allergic reactions.

I have to be honest, there is one important reason why I chose not to take my EpiPen® that I haven’t told you yet. Whether we’ve had one happen to us, watched a friend have one, or heard the story of a friend’s reaction, anaphylactic reactions are terrifying.

A man is reacting to something he didn't expect

It’s actually happening…

Sometimes, in the early stages of an allergic reaction, it may be tricky to discern if what is happening actually is a reaction. In a situation where I may not be sure whether I am having a reaction, I used to feel that by administering my EpiPen®, I was confirming that this was, in-fact, a reaction. When people are presented with bad news, a well-known coping mechanism involves going through the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model):

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The bad news I was presented with was, “Fraser, you’re having an anaphylactic reaction.” By not administering myself my EpiPen® I was dealing with this bad news by denying it. I have coped with the news of an allergic reaction with other stages in the past as well. When I drove myself from the library and waited in the emergency room parking lot, I was bargaining with myself: “Okay, I’ll wait here and take an antihistamine deal?”. I know it can be difficult to do, but the safest and most effective way to deal with an allergic reaction is to skip right to acceptance.

If my body had reacted more rapidly while I was in the library, I may not have made it to the hospital safely due to the way I handled the reaction. In short, in the future, I will always use my EpiPen®. Unsure? EpiPen®. Scared? EpiPen®. It is impossible to predict how one’s body will react to the same allergen an additional time, so basing what might happen based on my history of reactions is not a good idea. Financial cost and a short stay in the emergency department should never influence my decision to take care of myself. Allergies, whether we like them or not, may be part of our lives and they are of no fault of our own. Accepting them as a part of what makes us special can be difficult, but once this is done, it makes the challenge of having allergies much more manageable.

– Fraser K.

Denial: A Thought Process During an Allergic Reaction

As an adult I’ve experienced two anaphylactic reactions. They both had one thing in common: denial. Today I want to share my thought process during my reactions.

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We were having a great day walking around the Dutch city of Leiden. European cities have an age to them that Canadian cities can’t match. With age comes wisdom and somehow walking these cobbled streets helped me feel a sense of serenity and peace.

Earlier that day at lunch I went through a very unique experience ordering food from a waiter who spoke only Dutch, a language I couldn’t understand. It was unnerving to have my normal allergy discussion through a translator. After a few minutes my translator seemed satisfied that this restaurant was safe and we decided to eat. In retrospect, I ignored a few red flags and should have been more careful.

As I walked down the street I began feeling bloated. That’s normal enough when I’m suffering from jet lag and eating new foods in new places. I would have ignored it completely if it hadn’t steadily worsened over the course of an hour or so. Eventually I was so uncomfortable that I felt I might throw up. It crossed my mind that I may be having an anaphylactic reaction to my lunch.


When people with allergies talk about allergies to friends and family we tend to play up our vigilance. “I would never…” is the beginning of many of our bold claims. Here’s a good one that I’ve shared hundreds of times “I would never ignore even the slightest symptom of a reaction, it isn’t worth it.”

Contrary to my claim I wasn’t just ignoring my symptoms but I was actively rationalizing them away. My thought process went like this:

“My stomach hurts, that’s not an allergic reaction!”

A few moments later…
“If this was a reaction you’d already be passed out. This is taking too long, it’s just indigestion”

Finally…

“Don’t be stupid Jason, you’re making yourself panic. Take a deep breath and enjoy yourself. You’re only in Holland for a short time!”

This ongoing desperate attempt to explain away my symptoms was eventually interrupted by my brother who noticed I was behaving strangely. He offered me a mint to settle my stomach and noticed that I immediately complained that the mint made my tongue itch. With a subtlety that I only understood after the fact he casually remarked that if my tongue was itchy I should pinch my ear. I did. My ear was itchy and sore.
My brother and I locked eyes, he didn’t say anything. That was the moment I realized what was really happening.

Minutes later I was sitting on a Dutch hospital bed as a doctor scolded me for not using my auto-injector. Everything worked out fine but the denial nearly cost me my life.

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Three years later I was getting married.

My groomsmen and I rented a cottage for the bachelor party. After an evening of video games, beer, and cigars we were winding down the evening playing cards.
I didn’t feel right. My back and shoulders were itchy and I was generally uncomfortable. I figured I was tired, drunk, or both. Just like my walk through the streets of Leiden at some point it occurred to me that I may be having an allergic reaction.

I may be the king of denial because this time was nearly the same as last time.

“You’re fine.”

My brother, who is also allergic to peanuts, and was present, was not having a reaction. We had been eating the same food all weekend.

“If Dylan’s OK then I am too. It’s impossible for one of us to react and not the other.”

The worst part about the denial during shock is that it makes so much sense at the time. Every thought I had explained away my symptoms in a logical manner. I thought about indigestion, seasonal allergies, reactions to alcohol, fatigue. All of it made sense. It was enough to protect my fragile sense of security from the reality of a dangerous situation.

All good things come to an end. I walked past a mirror and saw a red patch on the back of my arm. This looked alarmingly like hives. Lifting my shirt, I checked my back. I felt a sinking feeling as I saw that my back was covered in hives.

From the outside looking in I know that this is the moment when I should have taken a shot of epinephrine and called an ambulance. I’m embarrassed that my actual response almost turned my anecdote into a tragedy. I looked at the rash and thought:

“This is fine. It’s just a rash, don’t ruin the party.”

For years, I scolded my friends who hid their symptoms to protect the fun that their friends were having. The joke was on me, I’m not so different. There I was in the midst of a full blown anaphylactic reaction convincing myself that I had nothing to worry about.

A few minutes later the hives were getting worse and I fessed up to the gang and showed them my back. While my friends debated what the rash could mean I made eye contact with my brother and immediately knew what he was thinking. This wasn’t a drill.

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Denial is one of the most dangerous symptoms of shock. Heart attacks are misunderstood as indigestion, strokes are mistaken for fatigue, and “small infections” are ignored leading to blood poisoning or worse.

We’re taught to treat hives, throat closures, chest tightness, and many other symptoms with urgency to protect ourselves. In an emergency, however, this can all be derailed by a few moments of denial. My first-hand experience was a real eye opener for me. I realize now that there is more to this equation than I had originally thought.

This can happen to any of us. If I had been reacting by myself who knows what would have happened. Luckily I had my brother with me to snap me out of denial twice. When you practice using your auto-injector or educate your friends don’t forget this scenario. Be prepared to face denial.

Always remember to take your symptoms seriously.

– Jason B.

From Food Allergies Suck to Food Allergies Rock!

Annoyed woman plugging ears with fingers doesn't want to listenI’ve found that there can be a lot of negativity revolving around food allergies. “Oh, you can’t eat peanut butter? Your life must suck!” “What?! You have to carry that thing around all the time? That’s brutal.” “Well if you can’t eat this, what can you eat?”

While the negativity can be quite overwhelming at times, I don’t really understand why it happens in the first place. What difference does it make to someone else’s life if I can’t eat something with peanuts or tree nuts in it? My life does not suck because I can’t eat Nutella or peanut butter. In fact, I think my life is better because I can’t eat those things. On the one hand, I remind everyone that because of my risk for anaphylaxis with peanuts and tree nuts, I avoid plenty of baked goods and sweets that my otherwise very sweet tooth would indulge in daily! This keeps me much healthier and in better shape. I’ve also tried peanut butter when I underwent an oral allergy test and full disclosure, I did not like the taste AT ALL.

Secondly, because of my food allergies I have learned so much about food, restaurant hospitality, travelling, airlines, baking, cooking, and especially about myself, that I would have never learned otherwise. My food allergy has opened more doors of opportunity than I could have possibly imagined when my 9-year-old self was told he was allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.

Teamwork meeting concept
For the most part, I am a very positive person. I pride myself on seeing the good in most situations. It’s not always easy to be positive when people around you always seem to pick out the negative aspects of life with a food allergy. My suggestion is to consider the fact that these people may simply not know anything about food allergies and their comments are simply ignorance. Take the opportunity to spread awareness and teach them about the positive aspects of food allergies. I think there’s something to be said about maintaining a positive outlook on food allergies. Positivity is contagious! Maybe your return comments will help them see why their comments were unjustified and why life with a food allergy really isn’t so bad after all.

– Dylan B.

By Food Allergy Canada