Why now? Food allergies late in life, really!
How did I become allergic to foods I have enjoyed all my life?
When I started having issues with sneezing, coughing, and an itchy throat after eating peanuts I initially brushed off my symptoms. I assumed I was coming down with yet another cold I’d caught from my students. I’d eaten peanuts all my life why would I think any differently?
Everything changed one afternoon in March 2013. I was in my kitchen pantry gathering items that I would need for dinner. I ate a small handful of peanuts in the shell that my husband had brought home, and just a few minutes later I started coughing and sneezing and felt my throat itching. My symptoms started flaring up more frequently after that incident culminating in a reaction after eating onion rings at a fast food restaurant. I started felling a tingling sensation in my upper lips, an itchy throat, and proceeded into a coughing fit along with sneezing and my thinking process started get confusing. All the symptoms that I experienced recently after eating peanuts were back and stronger than ever. I was confused because I did not have peanuts for lunch. Why was I getting sick?
When my husband and I got home I went to the bathroom and briefly stopped in front of the mirror; my lips looked like I had a massive dosage of Botox gone wrong. My husband immediately took me to our family doctor. It was determined that my onion rings had been fried in peanut oil so my doctor said that I’d had an allergic reaction to peanuts. I was treated and sent home with an EpiPen, along with a referral for a consultation with an allergist
I set up an appointment with a wonderful allergist with thirty years of experience. When he learned about my symptoms he knew immediately that I was dealing with a peanut allergy. He decided to set up a food challenge which is considered one of the best ways to diagnose a food allergy. These food challenges are imperative because even after performing a simple skin-prick test an allergist could be still unable to diagnose the allergy correctly. My skin test showed negative for a Peanut allergy. My husband told them that it did not mean anything that I would react to the food challenge.
On the morning of the food challenge, I was feeling apprehensive and had a lot of questions running through my mind. Even though my doctor explained the procedure in detail I was nervous about the unknowns I would encounter during the test. Would I fail the challenge? What if I had to get a shot with the EpiPen? Would it hurt? The thick needle certainly looked painful and I do not like needles.
The doctor started the test with a very small amount of peanut butter about an eighth of a teaspoon. The quiet summer morning at my doctor’s office changed quickly. Within just a minute I was experiencing anaphylactic shock. I was itching all over my body and my legs were covered with hives. When my doctor prompted me with easy questions like naming my favorite band I could not respond. I felt like I had been awake for the past forty-eight hours. Suddenly I felt a jolt and jumped; my doctor had given me an injection of Epinephrine.
After that afternoon not only did my life change immediately but my family’s changed as well. All peanut items in my pantry even food items that had been processed in the same facility as peanuts were thrown away. My husband and son stopped eating food with peanuts in them to prevent cross-contamination. I dreaded going to some of my favorite restaurants afraid that they may have peanuts on their menu and some of my favorite restaurants did list peanuts in their dishes.
For months after I had my failed my allergy test, my body reacted to everything, including tomatoes and onions. As an Italian female who came to the United States at the young age of nineteen it was difficult to try to modify my favorite recipes that I brought with me since I love to cook. My culture uses tomatoes and onions in many dishes. One scary day late that summer I noticed my chin, feet, hands, and forehead swelling up. I felt stiffness in my neck and my throat felt so tight that I felt like I was suffocating.
We immediately called our family doctor at the military hospital to set up an appointment. During this first visit our doctor was very sympathetic and caring. She stated that after a major allergic reaction the body goes into overdrive by reacting to everything. She assured me that soon everything would go back to normal. While I initially felt relief at her diagnosis I could not shake a feeling of dread. Something was still wrong.
I woke up one morning in early November with swollen feet, hands, and forehead. We rushed to the doctor. This time her sympathy had evaporated. She walked in the room with a very stern look on her face as if her mind had already been made up before hearing me speak. To my disbelief instead of offering me care she started reprimanding me in front of my husband and another medical student shadowing her for the day. “Seriously! Again! “Dear, we must do something about this” she said condescendingly. “You are having problems with anxiety.”
I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak. My husband immediately intervened and retorted, “Does anxiety cause all the symptoms that my wife is having?” “Sir, anxiety can cause all kinds of things,” she responded dismissively. Still reeling from her initial reaction, I asked her if she could write a referral for me to see an allergist. She refused stating, “I am specialized in internal medicine, and I know all about the inside of the body.”
Without even performing a medical exam my doctor presented me with two options — anxiety medication or a therapist. Feeling helpless I selected a therapist. My psychologist listened carefully to me as I described all the symptoms I had been experiencing. He responded, ‘’In my professional opinion, the symptoms you are having are not related to anxiety.” He suggested that I get a second opinion and gave the name of his personal physician a civilian doctor well known and respected in the medical community.
Unfortunately, I learned that this doctor was not accepting new patients when I tried scheduling an appointment. Desperate, I called the military hospital again for another referral attempt so I could see an allergist. A nurse answered the phone saying my family doctor was on vacation. She wrote down some notes about my symptoms and said she was going to give the current physician on duty my message. The next day I received a call from the same nurse stating that an authorization for me to see an allergist in town was approved by the physician on duty.
After so much trouble I was finally able to see an allergist. He was concerned about my symptoms. I was tested and diagnosed with angioedema an allergic condition that causes swelling of the face, hands, feet, and throat. If not treated the condition can be life-threatening. I am enormously grateful that I had decided to take my medical care into my own hands. My initial misdiagnosis of anxiety could have been deadly.
Learning to cope with the diagnosis can be challenging. Four years after my diagnosis I am still adjusting to living with life-threatening allergies. Just this spring I discovered that I am allergic to tree nuts. Going out to dinner requires giving the staff a run-down of my numerous allergies. When I go grocery shopping reading the labels is essential. I have already had allergic reactions from accidentally ingesting food items processed with peanuts. While most people only need their membership card and car keys for an afternoon at the gym, I pack a small backpack with my EpiPen and my medications.
I’ve learned to take it one day at a time. Yoga, running, and the loving support of my husband, children, and beloved sister helps me keep things in perspective. My allergist and new family doctor are fantastic and always listen to my concerns. This wonderful support system gives me the strength to face new challenges. This summer I will be visiting my family in Italy and while I’m a little anxious my allergist has assured me that his patients travel safely all the time.
My mission is to help people with food allergies, especially those who are newly diagnosed. I have a blog where I write about my allergies, and upload the latest studies and information. There is still a lot to learn.
I’d love to have a day where I don’t have to worry about reading labels where I can eat a peanut butter sandwich and a salad with walnuts without worrying about going into shock. But I cannot change what has happened in the past. All I can control is now. And when I get up in the morning I am grateful for being alive.