I’ve been allergic to peanuts for all my life. It’s a potentially life-threatening allergy. I’m often asked what it feels like to have an allergic reaction, so a I thought I’d try to share my experience.
The first time I ate peanuts, I was a 4 years old. I’d always hated the smell of the peanut butter that my parents had on the table at tea time so I’d simply never tried them before. We were on holiday, I can’t remember where, and I was outside our villa with a new friend – another girl on holiday. She was eating peanuts and offered them to me. Perhaps I wanted to impress my new friend. Perhaps I was just hungry. Either way, I ate one.
I knew immediately that something wasn’t right.
Eating the peanut made my throat tingle and itch. You know that feeling when you have just brushed your leg against a patch of stinging nettles? Not quite at the stinging phase but definitely there? That’s what it felt like, in my mouth and down my throat. I don’t know what I said to my friend, but I ran straight back in to my parents.
“I’ve eaten peanuts,” I managed to gasp, before vomiting.
That was back in 1986. Very few people had heard of peanut allergies then. My reaction was fairly frightening, but I hadn’t require hospitalisation or medical assistance. I had been able to get it out of my system and cope.
Over the rest of my childhood, we had to be careful. Eating food my mum had cooked was fine, and we had packed lunches at school. I do remember breaking out in hives after eating something when we had school dinners in reception, but I don’t think that was peanut-related. Allergies – to nuts, to cats, to pollen – were just part of my life.
Asking about nuts almost became second nature. Every time I was offered a piece of cake, I had to check. Every time I went to a friends house for tea. Birthday parties were a nightmare, and I’m sure loads of parents just thought I was being fussy. After all, none of the other children had allergies.
The few times I ate nuts throughout my childhood, I was very sick, and managed to get it out of my system.
I had learned which foods were safe, and avoided those which weren’t. This was the early 90s, and Taunton wasn’t particularly multicultural. After a reaction to a Chinese meal when I was around 9, my family and I avoided Chinese food and rarely went out for meals.
Then, when I was 11, I was prescribed an adrenaline-filled injection. I was taught to use it by my local GP. It was a complicated contraption, in two parts which had to be assembled together. All of my teachers had to learn how to use it – I was at secondary school by then – and I still felt like I was being an inconvenience.
Amazingly, between the ages of 11 and 16, I didn’t have to use the injection at all. In 1998, I was prescribed an Epipen, which was much simpler to use.
I had a few reactions in my late teens. I suppose this is because I was eating out a bit more, and had become a bit more relaxed. Each time, I was able to use my Epipen quickly.
The reactions begin in the same way: that terrible itch down my throat and in my mouth. Lumps start to form on my lips pretty quickly. It’s uncomfortable, but the worst sensation is the fear: that sick feeling rising up that something is terribly, terribly wrong. My chest and throat begin to feel tight: this is the start of anaphylaxis. At this stage, I know I need to get the adrenaline injected quickly.
People who have witnessed me have a reaction have always commented how quickly I know that I’ve eaten peanuts. I know immediately.
Dealing with a reaction is the most critical part of having a severe allergy, but a significant part is that I’m dealing with the unknown. Doctors have always told me vaguely to avoid nuts, but this isn’t always possible. I’ve accidentally found out that I can eat almonds, cashews and pecans, but I can’t eat pistachios. I’ve always avoided Brazil nuts, as there is apparently a lot of commonality between peanuts and Brazils. Despite having requested it, I’ve never been able to get allergy tested. So I continue to avoid some foods.
Travelling is always the most difficult. In my early 20s, I went on a mission trip to Ecuador, working in an orphanage. On the second day of a month-long stay, despite informing our hosts of my allergy, I was given a peanut sauce. Although my Epipen worked immediately, it was the only one I had. The charity that I went with, my parents and their local GP were amazing, and somehow a replacement Epipen was couriered out to Ecuador for the last week, but being without it was frightening. After then, I always carried two Epipens when I went travelling.
That said, there are some countries I will always avoid, particularly East African countries, because peanuts make up so much of the local diet. I’ve avoided travelling to Thailand for this reason. When we went to India, Tim made me a ‘No Peanuts’ card to help in translation. This was actually a brilliant idea, and has been really useful.
Now I’m a parent, I worry about passing my allergy on to my children. When I weaned Ben, I sought advice from my GP, but she simply told me: don’t give him nuts. Well, that’s fine, but what about when someone else gives him nuts? Now I’m starting to wean Samuel, the advice has changed, and I should give him nuts before he’s 11 months old. In my mind, that’s too little! I know the fear that comes with a reaction, and I don’t want to subject my children to that.
Although peanut allergy, and allergies in general, are much more well-known now, there is still a sense that I’m causing inconvenience. Often, people don’t understand that it’s not just a whim or a fad; it’s life-threatening. I depend on my Epipen to save my life.
Mostly, though, people do understand, and make the effort to avoid using nuts if they’re cooking for me. Tim doesn’t eat nuts, which is a bit of a sacrifice for him. If I go away for a few days, he’ll treat himself to a Snickers bar, and then get paranoid that I might somehow touch the wrapper which is in the bin! We don’t have nuts in the house at all.
The good thing is that there is a lot of research going on into peanut allergy. Hopefully, fewer people will be affected in the future.
This week, 25th April-1st May, is Allergy Awareness Week. Find out more at AllergyUK.