When Food Allergy Strikes an Adult
Developing a food allergy in adulthood is a life-changer. Your carefree diet is out the window, and now you have auto-injectors, anaphylaxis risks, and lots of explaining. Meet those who’ve joined this brave new world. (First published in Allergic Living magazine; to subscribe click here.)
ONE spring morning back in 2011, Sandy Williams was calmly sitting at her desk in her Washington, D.C. office, munching on one of her favorite snacks – mixed nuts. As she ate, a strange sensation came over her, which rapidly progressed into the symptoms of a frightening anaphylactic reaction.
“My eyelids started swelling and then my throat started closing,” she recalls. Williams was taken to the hospital, and was soon in such poor condition that she had to be rushed into surgery to have a breathing tube inserted. “From Monday through Thursday I was in a coma, with a breathing tube and all,” she says.
After recovering, Williams was tested by an allergist and diagnosed with allergies to both tree nuts and soy. She was shocked: she was 52 at the time and had never had any allergy, food or otherwise. But here she was, not just allergic but reacting at the extreme end of the spectrum.
The fact that tree nuts were a culprit was especially peculiar, since they had always been a favorite. “Ever since I could chew, three to four times a week I would eat nuts,” she says.
Williams was thrown into the deep end of the mysterious world of adult-onset food allergies. Somehow, well after childhood and past the maturing of the immune system, these grown people develop brand new food allergies, and not uncommonly to a food they’ve eaten regularly.
TRACKING THE CLUES
TAKE the case of Tanya Lacey, 40, who teaches high school in a town southwest of Toronto, Canada. Lacey became allergic to one of her preferred foods – shellfish – in her 30s. “People even thought I was a weird kid, I always wanted shrimp,” says Lacy, who was diagnosed in 2005. It took her some time to figure out why she was experiencing symptoms such as a feeling of throat tightness. Lacey was referred to an allergist, and she kept a food log in the month leading up to the appointment.
But she still had no real clue as to the culprit until she suffered an unnerving reaction at a restaurant.
“I probably should have gone to the hospital, but I didn’t because I wasn’t sure what was happening,” she recounts. “I had throat tightening, high anxiety, and felt really sick to my stomach.” Feeling like she needed air, she stepped outside into the cold February evening, and waited. “After an hour so, it kind of passed.”
Even if not ideally managed, the experience brought about an epiphany. Lacey recalled the strange sensation she’d had after eating shrimp at a party earlier that month. “It felt like I had swallowed one of the tails of the shrimp, and had it lodged in my throat,” she says. “And that’s what I had just had for dinner (at the restaurant) .” When the allergist appointment arrived, she wasn’t surprised when crustaceans were confirmed as her allergen.
Yet even then, it didn’t fully sink in. She joked with the doctor: “That’s my favorite thing to eat, can’t you just give me one of those ‘needle things’?”
The doctor’s reply was sobering. She was indeed giving Lacey an epinephrine auto-injector prescription – “because the next time you might die.” The patient went out to the parking lot and cried; “I had no idea that it could be so dangerous.”
While Lacey and Williams reacted to foods they had long enjoyed, this isn’t always the case with adult-onset allergies. For some, a longstanding aversion to a particular food may be a sign that an allergy is brewing.
“I was always a picky eater as a kid, I never really liked spicy foods,” says Johanna Bond, who was diagnosed with anaphylactic allergies to hot peppers (including chili, cayenne and paprika) and tree nuts at age 24. “I actually stopped eating walnuts while I was in college, because they would make my gums burn.”
Bond, a mental health counselor working in Rochester, New York, found out about her allergy while at a restaurant with friends. She had to visit the emergency room after eating a marinara sauce that contained chili flakes. Subsequent testing confirmed that her allergies were life-threatening.
Just like Lacey with the shrimp at the party, many adults who develop a food allergy have had clues that something is not quite right. “I had experiences before, but had not really realized what they meant,” says Bond. “I never thought there was an allergy to nuts until I got the testing.”
LIFE CHANGES FOR GOOD
WITH a new-onset food allergy – especially one revealed the hard way, through anaphylaxis – the initial jolt of diagnosis tends to give way to a variety of emotions, including fear, anxiety and concern about social isolation. Then begins the steep learning curve of safely navigating day-to-day life through reading grocery labels, asking about ingredients in all food situations, and always carrying your auto-injectors.
“Having to relearn how to eat is a huge undertaking as an adult,” says Bond.
Next: Speaking Up About Diet Needs