The Allergies to Life That We Don't Understand

It was late at night when I accidentally consumed dairy, which I am - apparently - deadly allergic to. My tongue swelled up straight away, followed by my lips and throat. I looked in the mirror and tried to decide how serious it was. Probably not very, I thought.

It was late at night when I accidentally consumed dairy, which I am - apparently - deadly allergic to. My tongue swelled up straight away, followed by my lips and throat. I looked in the mirror and tried to decide how serious it was. Probably not very, I thought.

Next came the stabbing pain in my throat and the inability to breathe. It happened suddenly and I couldn't make sense of it, although in hindsight it's obvious that my throat was constricting. How could my body have developed a severe allergy like this, all of a sudden? I stumbled into the living room and indicated to my husband that I couldn't breathe. He wasn't too worried - I have had mild wheezing problems before and he thought this would correct itself. I agreed with him. He advised me to calm down, which is easy enough to say when you have the breath to say it.

When I felt like I was truly going to suffocate to death, I implored him to dial 999. By the time the paramedics arrived the wheezing had abated, but my face was still swelling. Then came the hives. I had never had hives before. They are like little nettle stings, bumps that spread across your body, and the term 'unbearably itchy' does not quite cover the way they irritate the skin. I couldn't stop scratching even when the paramedics were checking me over, and when the rash subsided the only evidence that the hives had been there were large, self-inflicted scratches.

Next, the rapid heart rate. Have you ever felt your heart beat so fast that you can feel it in your chest and ears? I thought I was going to die. I could have.

Confusion followed as one of the paramedics told me that I had taken a (prescribed) drug to cause this reaction. It took me a while to understand that he didn't believe that food could have caused it. I cautiously admitted that I had taken an antihistamine after the wheezing had abated, and he clung to this like an official diagnosis. In the ambulance, he read out the potential side effects of the antihistamine I had taken. All the symptoms fit. My husband pointed out that the reaction began before I'd taken the pill, but the paramedic didn't understand that.

Well, nor do I.

Nor does anyone, really.

By the time I arrived in A&E I had no symptoms to speak of save an incredible weakness of body and mind. The doctor who discharged me did not disbelieve that the reaction had been caused by food, but he didn't take it seriously either. He advised me to take another antihistamine when I got home, and that taking one daily would help my body to recover. In fact, there is evidence that antihistamines make no difference in the fight against anaphylaxis. I expected him to give me epinephrine, an injection that provides a shot of adrenaline to halt the body's allergic response, and send me on my way. Instead, he told me that autoimmune problems are tricky, that it was likely a one off, and that I should consider trying dairy again in the future. The fact that he advised this is testament to the fact that he saw me after all my scary symptoms had subsided, two hours after it had all begun. I was just glad that it was all over.

But in the days of rest and healing that followed, I realised that it isn't over. It won't ever be. Because my body has developed this deadly allergy, and the smallest consumption of a prevalent ingredient in food, medicine and even cosmetics might end my life. 90 per cent of people with previous wheezing problems or asthma die from anaphylaxis. I was in the lucky 10 per cent, this time. Rates of anaphylaxis are increasing across the globe, and the increase is mainly related to food-induced anaphylaxis. The greatest risk of death is to young people and women.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my GP told me to avoid eating nuts. I am not allergic to nuts, but there is a case of peanut allergy in my family, so he said that I shouldn't introduce nuts until my daughter was over two, to prevent an allergy from developing. When we moved house and changed GPs, my new GP told me that avoiding nuts altogether was a sure way to sensitize my daughter to them, thus creating an allergy. In the end I went to see an expert, who told me that that no one really knows what the best course of action for avoiding allergies in children is, besides doing an allergy test such a skin patch test, which would not be very accurate, and hoping for the best.

It seems like a small remedy for a dangerous problem. This is not a criticism of our medical establishment or the emergency services, but a stark warning that we need to invest more time and money into researching allergies. No one knows why allergies and anaphylaxis are on the rise. What I went through was frightening, and it could have killed me. The thought of my daughter going through the same ordeal is beyond terrifying for me. Not to mention the prejudice children with allergies have to live with. But until more research is done, and peer-reviewed studies of people with allergies and other autoimmune problems is undertaken, we continue to put ourselves and our children at risk of death from their environment.

Given the facts, I don't think its undue hyperbole to call anaphylaxis an allergy to life. I just hope that increased awareness and discussion of allergies will give us more of a drive to discover and tackle the root of this life-threatening problem.

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