Seemingly Trivial: Food Allergies


Iman Baber

   My friend and I looked at each other with a look of mingled confusion, dare and disappointment. We then directed our attention towards what had incited these emotions in the first place: sitting directly in front of us was a box, all but empty except for three fat chocolate cupcakes, each with a heap of frosting on top. 

   See, it was someone’s birthday, and they had brought these cupcakes for the rest of the class to celebrate. But they couldn’t guarantee that the cakes didn’t have nuts, so, my friend and I, both deathly allergic, stared at the other kids in envy and contemplated whether we should take the chance and eat a cupcake. 

   “Well!” my friend suddenly exclaimed, breaking the silence. “I’m going to eat it! Can’t be afraid of everything, and I should take the chance!”

   I nodded after listening to her sage wisdom, and watched as she picked one up, hesitated a little, and then promptly swallowed half of it in one bite. 

   I never ate the cupcake. 

   My elementary school experience was marked by instances similar to this one. From being one of the only kids who couldn’t eat whatever the birthday kid brought to class or having kids throw nut granola bars at me (thankfully still in their wrappers) during lunch time, my food allergies always seemed to cause more problems than they needed to. 

   Another memorable incident was in fourth grade. The teacher had brought packets of Oreo-like cookies for the class, but again, there was no guarantee that they didn’t have nuts. Everyone else ate the cookies, savoring it. 

   “Oh my gosh,” the boy in front of me exclaimed. “These are so good!”

   “Yup!” the girl next to him agreed. “But these definitely have nuts.”

   “Oh, yeah. For sure,” the boy said in a drawn-out, exaggerated voice. 

   I know it might seem like a really childish thing to get upset about, but, as a kid, it really bothered me. It’s not my choice to be allergic to nuts. Furthermore, I can’t help it that I will have a potentially fatal reaction from eating one. And I’m not the only kid who has experiences like these. 

   According to Food Allergy Research and Education, approximately 32 million Americans have food allergies. This number includes the 5.6 million children who have food allergies. The eight common food allergens are fish, tree nuts, milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, crustacean shellfish and soy, and they are responsible for the majority of serious allergic reactions. 

   An allergic reaction can range in severity — the most mild reactions will have symptoms such as a rash, watery eyes or an itchy throat. However, the more severe reactions – the types of reactions that I have – can have many more painful symptoms. 

   Allow me to describe. 

   First, my tongue starts itching – a lot. This is immediately followed by my throat going painfully dry and itchy. My lips feel really warm and start swelling. By this point, panic sets in – I know I’m having an allergic reaction but am trying my best to remain calm about it, so I take a Benadryl pill hoping it will work its magic. Soon, I start itching all over my body and hives break out, followed later by wrenching stomach pain. At this point I’m probably lying on a bed or couch, trying to wait it out. About an hour in, my blood pressure drops, causing me to go pale and start shivering. It’s now getting harder to swallow and breathe, and I’m probably muttering under my breath, annoyed that I have to go through this yet again. The last few stages are the worst. With all of the stated symptoms culminating in a head, I start feeling a strong fluttering feeling in my chest – almost like I’m dying – and a sense of hopelessness so strong that I start drafting my will. Hopefully then, I throw up and get whatever was causing the reaction out of my system. 

    The reaction that I experience is called an anaphylactic reaction – a severe form of allergic reaction. Others who also experience anaphylaxis may exhibit additional symptoms such as vertigo. It can cause unconsciousness or be potentially fatal; in fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, anaphylaxis can result in death in under half an hour in extreme cases. In emergencies such as these, an epinephrine shot – also known simply as an Epipen – must be administered in order to stop the reaction. Thankfully, in my case, we’ve never had to use an Epipen and have only had to take me to the ER once. Unfortunately, not everyone’s symptoms will get better like mine do. 

   According to CBS News, 200 people die annually in the United States from food allergies. As Food Allergy Research and Education reports, about 200,000 people must receive emergency care as a result of allergic reactions.  

   Despite the dangers surrounding food allergies, there is a lack of awareness about how food allergies can affect a person’s life. A survey conducted in 2015 and cited by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that 49 percent of the participants had little to no knowledge about food allergies, and 82 percent expressed that there should be education surrounding food allergies. The data well reflects my own experiences – I have met many people who weren’t aware of how dangerous an allergic reaction can actually be. 

   The lack of awareness may seem harmless, but it can be an unwanted stresser for those with allergies. My worst nightmare includes menus or ingredient labels that fail to mention if an item has nuts, and I have gotten quite a few reactions because of this. There was that time when I ate a bread roll I got as a party favor from a friend’s birthday. The box held no indication that there were any allergens in the bread, yet I ended up in the ER. We later learned from the bakery that it was made using a powder of all the major nuts. Another time, a family friend brought ice-cream which the creator ensured had no nuts. A few bites in, and I started to feel symptoms of a reaction. Turns out the bits that we thought were chocolate chips were actually bits of hazelnut – the nut that I am most allergic to. I was dangerously sick for four hours after that.  Mistakes such as these are not only disastrous, but can potentially be fatal. 

   As NBC News reports, 18-year old Owen Carey died after eating a burger to celebrate his birthday. His family notified the restaurant that he was allergic to dairy, and he was brought a burger that the restaurant assured was safe for him to eat. Unfortunately, the chicken within the burger had been battered with buttermilk, and Carey tragically died soon after eating the meal. 

   Many more stories like these have made headlines in the past few years, and they show that mistakes and unawareness are not harmless, but they can take lives and break families. However, mistakes like these can be avoided, and awareness can be spread. 

   We all can take steps in order to help those around who have food allergies. Simply asking what they cannot eat and offering alternatives can make a big difference – I cannot tell you how amazing it is when the people around you take great care to make sure that what you are eating is safe. Learning about the symptoms of allergic reactions can also be an important way to help. If we all take steps to increase our awareness about the dangers of food allergies, we can all help to make the world a little less stressful for those of us who do have them. 

   And maybe someday, everyone will be able to eat whatever the birthday kid brought.