The Truth About Allergies and Why They Must Not Be Seen as Burdens

Life Experiences, stories, video

How it took a near-death experience to understand the seriousness of living with allergies

Chocolate that can be eaten by a person with severe egg and nut allergies along with an epi-pen and proscribed medication (credit: Eidhne Gallagher)

This is one of the most difficult things I have ever written about, but at the same time, I think it is important that I tell my story.

Growing up, I hated going out to restaurants. It wasn’t the fact that I hated the places we went or didn’t like dressing up. It was that I hated having to make awkward requests to the servers so they wouldn’t serve me something that I couldn’t eat.

When I was a baby, it was discovered that I was allergic to eggs, nuts and sesame seeds. It was discovered after I was given a Milky Way bar (of all things) and my body began to swell all over. I was rushed to the hospital and soon the results were given.

My first severe reaction happened when I was 22 months old and I was exposed to nuts. It was through that experience that caused my parents to become aware of my allergens. With the help of my family, I felt that I was able to keep away from things I couldn’t eat. Perhaps, because as a result of this caution, I saw my allergies as a problem to others because food could never be simple when it came to me. Until a year ago, I was so fixated on how others saw my ‘problems’, that I didn’t understand how my allergies could seriously affect me.

This meant that I always had to be cautious when it came to food, constantly checking the ingredients to make sure that they were safe for me to eat. Whenever I went out for dinner with friends, we would always have to go somewhere that was alright for me. I hated this because I felt that my problem was a burden to my friends and they couldn’t really enjoy someplace they wanted to because of me.

On the night of 3rd November 2019, my view on my allergies would change forever.

That night, I was meeting up with a few friends from a drama club and we were going out for dinner in a new place. Because I had never been there, I knew that I had to speak to the people about my allergies. I told them what I couldn’t have and they assured me that the food on the menu would be alright for me.

That was a bull-faced lie.

When we finally got our food, I ended up with smoked salmon. I put a piece in my mouth and almost immediately, something was wrong. My mouth began to tingle and my stomach felt funny. I went outside to get some air and ended up getting sick. Fish was off the menu that night; I wasn’t going to be eating any more. In my mind, I thought that now I had gotten it out of my system, I would be alright.

I was wrong.

Suddenly, my chest began to tighten. It was extremely painful, like I was being stabbed multiple times. It felt like I was having a heart attack. I rushed to the bathroom in agony.

For the rest of my life, I will never forget what I saw in the mirror. My skin was pale as a ghost, my eyes were completely bloodshot and I could barely stand.

I looked like a monster.

By this point, my friends knew that they had to get me to the hospital, no arguments. The pain in the chest had gotten so bad, I was in tears. We went straight to the emergency department and I was given an injection. After that, gradually the pain went away and I ultimately recovered. I remember apologising multiple times to my friends that night as I believed that I had ruined everything. But they insisted on staying with me in the hospital, they looked after me and refused to leave me on my own, despite me saying that it was okay. I must have completely horrified them, but for them to stay meant a lot to me.

It took a long time for me to get over what happened that night. There have been many frightening experiences in my life, but none as intense as this.

I actually thought that I was going to die.

A video project showing the true realities of living with allergies. Credit: Eidhne Gallagher

As terrifying as that night was, it was also a wake-up call for me. After that night, I began to realise that I need to be take my allergies more seriously. I could have died because I wasn’t prepared and because I was too embarrassed to speak about my condition.

Doctor Isuelt Sheehan of Allergy Ireland, says that the feeling that allergies are something to be ashamed of, is quite common in young people. As children begin to grow up, they can feel embarrassed and try to hide their allergies from people around them. ‘When it comes to teenagers’ she says ‘it is a particularly difficult time. Coping with an allergy is difficult because they can feel embarrassed about it. They feel they can’t talk to their friends about it but it’s important they do so their friends will know as well, how to manage the situation if it ever comes about.’

It must also be questioned whether public places really understand the serious nature of food allergies. By law, all restaurants menus must display information in relation to allergens in their choices. They must all be aware with how to manage a case if a customer ever suffers from an allergic reaction. All food packets must now display allergen warnings and information in relation to their ingredients. ‘Restaurants are a lot more aware about allergies than they were in the past.’ says Dr. Sheehan. ‘It’s extremely important that for any allergic reaction, restaurant staff undergo the necessary training. It is rare, thankfully, that we get reports of public reactions in restaurants.’

Any allergic reaction is frightening, not just for the sufferer, but for those around them. ‘There are no words to describe the experience of watching your child having an allergic reaction.’ one parent said. ‘Eventually as a parent, you learn to recognize trigger-points but this is gradual because you have neither prior knowledge of what makes up most foods, nor prior experience in dealing with this.  You learn to study ingredients before you buy, you learn to prepare foods that don’t contain triggers, you learn to recognize signs of a reaction in your child and most of all, you learn to ignore those who tell you ‘sure they’ll grow out of it’ or those who consider you to be ‘fussy’ or ‘awkward’ when it comes to your child’s diet.’

Research has shown that in Ireland, approximately 5% of children and 3% of adults suffer from some form of food allergy. The rate of severe allergic reactions which result in a visit to A&E have trebled over the last twenty years. The most common food allergies in Ireland are to cow’s milk, eggs, nuts, fish, wheat, soya and peanuts. These account for about 90% of all allergic reactions. Dr. Sheehan says that the rate of allergies has increased by 50%. Because of this increase, she also says that ‘it’s important that we are all aware of them, not just the sufferers, but the whole world.’

All allergies, whether mild or severe, must be taken seriously both by the sufferer and all those who work in the food and hospitality industry. Sufferers need to see allergies as a nuisance rather than a burden. The burdens of allergies must be looked past. Sufferers and relatives must know how to deal with them if there ever comes a time when you get a reaction. As Dr. Sheehan says ‘Reassuring and advising sufferers and families can help with coping with allergies.’ She also touches on the importance of an epi-pen. ‘It’s wonderful that we have them available. As an allergist, we talk through them with patients and their families, show them how to use them and reassure them, that they can help.’

For anyone who suffers from allergies, being aware, being able to talk about your allergies and carrying an epi-pen wherever you go, can simply save your life.

It only took a piece of fish and an emergency visit to the hospital for me to realise this.