September 15, 2008

I Have to Live in Fear of Foods That Could Kill Me


WHEN I was four years old, we made peanut cookies at school. We used peanut butter, eggs and flour, rolling up the dough into little balls ready to be put in the oven.

They looked great but I never got to eat them.

After about 10 minutes, my teacher noticed my arms were swelling up. Another five minutes and they had swollen to three times their normal size, and my face and lips were starting to swell too.

I was rushed home and taken to the doctor, who confirmed my parents' fears: I was seriously allergic to peanuts.

That was the first time I came into contact with peanuts. Since then, at the age of 24, my allergy has worsened.

When I was 14, I was on a camping trip with my parents when I accidentally ate a bite of a Snickers bar.

I was lucky enough to have a relatively slow reaction - some people collapse almost instantly - and there was a trained nurse with us who realised what was happening and called an ambulance.

After taking antihistamines, I sat in a folding chair, my mouth and lips swelling, feeling my throat constrict and my breathing getting more and more difficult, while my parents desperately tried to direct the paramedics to the right field.

By the time they arrived, I was minutes from death.

They injected me with a large dose of adrenaline, which reduced the reaction instantly. I was shaking, sick and couldn't move, but I could breathe again.

I was taken to hospital to make sure I was safe and the reaction had stopped, and to check that my heart was OK, as adrenaline can have adverse effects on it.

That was my first anaphylactic reaction, and life has never been the same since.

After being treated, I was prescribed an Epipen, an automatic injection kit containing a small dose of adrenaline. I carry one with me everywhere now, as well as having one at home in Benton, Newcastle, and at the office, along with antihistamines.

I was also officially diagnosed with allergies to other nuts, beef and a variety of fresh fruit, as well as suffering from hay fever. Mild fruit allergies are common in people with certain types of hay fever, as the molecules in some pollens are very similar to those in fruit.

For example, if you are allergic to silver birch pollen you may well have a minor allergic reaction to raw apples. This is known as oral allergy syndrome, and is increasingly wellrecognised.

Because of these other allergies, I have to avoid a whole array of foods. Every time you have a reaction, even a very minor one, you become slightly sensitised to the substance causing the reaction. That means that the next reaction is likely to be more serious.

It's therefore vital to avoid the foods you're allergic to, even if you only have mild reactions. This can mean altering your entire life to work around the allergy.

There is no way of curing allergy at the moment, but scientists are working on treatments that might make it possible to suppress allergic reactions, as well as special treatments for peanuts that can remove the molecule that people like me react to.

Allergies are also difficult to diagnose.

The blood tests used by doctors can give false positive results, meaning that you might develop an allergy in the future but don't necessarily have reactions now.

Generally, allergic reactions come on very quickly after eating the food in question - within minutes in most cases.

Doctors usually rely on patients' own experiences, and may do blood tests or skin-prick tests, whereby a drop of allergen is placed on the skin and the skin is pricked slightly with a medical needle to confirm the diagnosis.

If you think you might be allergic to something, you should speak to your GP. It's also a good idea to keep a food diary to help you keep track of which foods are causing your reactions.

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