Monday, May 9, 2016

Food Allergy Awareness Week

Today is the start of Food Allergy Awareness Week! What are you allergic to?

Seriously, approximately 15 million Americans have at least one food allergy, and many have multiple allergies. Eight foods (or food sources) account for 90% of all food allergies: milk, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat/gluten, soy, eggs, fish, and shellfish. My guess is that everyone reading this blog knows at least two people with food allergies (the first would be me =P and you probably know someone else, too!).

Has anyone seen the new commercials on TV for epi pens? It is filmed from the perspective of a girl with an allergy to peanuts. The commercial shows her getting hives and a rash and swelling as her friends make sure there were no nuts in the brownies only to find out there was peanut butter. At the end of the commercial, she is presumably passing out as her field of vision shrinks and you hear her friends shouting to call 911 and apologizing to her for forgetting her allergy.

It is well done. As someone who has experienced anaphylaxis from food, it is almost too well done. Every time I see it on TV, I almost want to cringe and look away, because I know the feeling of panic that comes when I realize I accidentally had some milk. I know what it is like to feel my throat closing and like everything is fading out. Thankfully, I also know what it is like to feel epinephrine kick in within 2 minutes of using the epi pen and to feel myself be able to take a breath again and refocus on the world.

Just like in the commercial where they confirmed there were no nuts in the brownies, but no one thought to specify a nut butter, people often assume that a food request is just a preference rather than life-or-death. Never be afraid to ask seemingly repetitive questions to make sure. If you ask if the brownies have nuts, also ask if there is any nut butter, peanut butter chips, peanut m&ms, etc. Make sure whoever you are asking realize it is because you have a life threatening allergy, not because you're picky or on the latest fad diet. It is WAY more inconvenient to make someone triple check that your food is safe than for them to have to call 911 because you didn't want to be a bother.

I've been living with food allergies for almost 10 years now. I am allergic to milk, wheat, and soy and have dealt with other food sensitivities over the years. My milk allergy is by far the worst and I can go into anaphylaxis from very small amounts of even a milk residue. I read labels of every food I buy, even products that I have had before (learned that the hard way...). I have gotten used to double and triple checking my food in restaurants. I am so sensitive to milk that my husband and I use separate dishes so there is no chance of any residue being left behind (learned that the hard way, too...). I know to check whether any other forms of milk (butter, cheese, lactose, casein, whey, etc.) are hidden in the food I may be served somewhere. Yet even with my experience, how careful I am, and all the safeguards in place, things can still happen.

Just this past week, I was at a local coffee shop. I had been there many times before and knew they had safe almond milk. I am *slightly* (cue my husband laughing...) indecisive so I let the person behind me order first. I watched the barista make his drink and decided that what he ordered sounded good. I ordered the same thing, but again confirmed they had almond milk and it was a brand I knew was safe. I paid and watched as the barista made my drink. Everything seemed fine until the very end where she grabbed a spoon off the counter to mix my drink...the same spoon she had used to mix the previous drink which appeared to have milk in it. I immediately asked if she did, in fact, use the same spoon and if there had been milk in the previous drink. She said yes and looked slightly confused and told me that she had used almond milk in my drink. It wasn't until I explained that I was severely allergic to milk and that even the bit left on the spoon from the previous drink was enough to trigger anaphylaxis that she got it. She apologized multiple times and remade my drink, so it ended up okay...this time...

I am so thankful that things ended well, but it could have ended very differently. Had I not let the person behind me order first, I might not have seen her mix the drink and could have reacted to milk from another drink made before I even arrived at the coffee shop. Had I not watched her make the other person's drink and seen her use the spoon, it might not have occurred to me to ask if the spoon had been used before. Had I not been watching my drink being made, I never would have seen that same spoon used again. And potentially worst of all, had I been too afraid to be an inconvenience that I assumed that little bit of milk would be okay, I would have put myself in a life threatening situation by my own choice.
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The commercial is chilling in a good way. It does a good job of portraying what anaphylaxis can actually look like and how it can happen even when the people you are with know about your allergy. You are your own best advocate. Anaphylaxis is scary. It is life threatening. It doesn't matter how many times I have had to deal with a severe reaction, it never gets easier. Feeling my throat closing, having trouble breathing, being on the verge of passing out and unable to communicate...it is NOT worth your life, anyone's life, to risk being an inconvenience.

If you live with food allergies:
  • Don't be afraid to speak up
  • Don't be afraid to confirm and reconfirm your food/drink is safe
  • Don't go anywhere without your epi pen
  • And NEVER be afraid to use it

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