This issue’s feature on Allergen Risk Management discusses how “making it personal” through stories of individual cases and experiences of food allergies can be very powerful in the building of allergen awareness and care among workers. As such, I’ve decided to use this column to tell my own story. While its significance is certainly not comparable to those who must contend with life-threatening food allergies every day, it does relate the power of personal experience in a very individual way.
I’ve always been able to eat pretty much whatever I wanted (except fresh pineapple, which causes a not-uncommon tongue irritation). But all that changed earlier this year.
It had been a fairly typical winter Saturday – a relaxed morning, a bit of shopping in the afternoon, a home-cooked dinner, then a movie later in the evening. Just before bed, I began to notice some tingling in my lips. Nothing critical, but noticeable and a little irritating.
But it wasn’t until I woke in the morning that I discovered that sometime overnight, my lips had swollen to vaguely resemble the puffed mouth of a fish. I had no idea what had happened; it didn’t hurt, it just felt somewhat numb and large – and after looking in the mirror once, I avoided doing that again.
The swelling continued into early afternoon, when it began to gradually dissipate; but it wasn’t until sometime the next evening that my lips felt completely back to normal. I spent most of Sunday trying to figure out what had happened – and avoiding food entirely until I was told, “You need to eat something today!”
As with many of us in this industry, I know more than is sometimes helpful. I know that such swelling (angioedema) can be a food-allergy reaction and a first sign of anaphylaxis, which can be fatal if not immediately treated; and I know that each reaction to an allergen can be worse than the one before. That scared me. I was afraid to eat anything – or even put anything close to my lips. I continued my day (finally eating a sandwich), but the anxiety stayed top of mind – and I certainly wasn’t going to leave the house! Over and over, I attempted to recall everything I had eaten and done that Saturday. I made a list of the foods I’d consumed, and I didn’t touch my lip balms.
This had never happened to me before and, thankfully, it has not happened since. The only thing I could recall as being at all different that day was that I had eaten two mini Almond Joy bars – which are, of course, all coconut topped with an almond. While the almond may have been thought of as the most obvious culprit, I knew I had eaten almonds and other nuts earlier that week with no effect. So the only conclusion I could draw was that I had developed a new allergy or intolerance to coconut. Unfortunately, it has always been one of my favorite foods. But since that day, I have avoided all coconut, and, to be on the safe side, I completely replaced all my lip balms, and only slowly, carefully added nuts back into my diet.
To this day, I don’t know for sure what caused the reaction, but I am now incessantly conscious of everything I eat, and the incident has given me an inkling of the fears and cautions that those with serious food allergies have to live with each day. Whether my reaction was caused by coconut or some other unknown, the impact of food allergies, and the need for allergen risk management, has been made personal for me in a way I never expected.
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.