Public service announcement (or, living with food allergies)

On Wednesday night I went out to eat at an Indian restaurant and ordered something benign. I can't remember the name of the dish, but it had potatoes and peas in a spicy curry. It smelled delicious...but I knew after only three small bites that there was something wrong. My throat had become scratchy, and swallowing was just on the edge of painful. I was having an allergic reaction.

Most people don't know this, but I have an allergy to tree nuts. (Not peanuts -- peanuts are legumes. Look it up.) The reason most people don't know this is that to me, it's never been that big of a problem. Some people have life-threatening allergies, and in comparison, mine felt like no big deal. I wasn't as careful as I could have been, but my reactions, when they occurred, weren't that serious: a scratchy throat, some drowsiness, a little trouble swallowing. Just take some Benadryl, go to sleep, and wake up better. (I can see those people who carry EpiPens everywhere rolling their eyes.)

Wednesday night was different. Not from the start -- from the start it felt the same as it always did. I excused myself from the table and made for the closest Walgreens to pick up some Benadryl and water.

The trouble started after that. I'd obtained my Benadryl, but the symptoms were not going away. Au contraire -- they were getting worse. Much worse. Over the next six hours my ears swelled, inhibiting my ability to hear. I was alternately feverish and chilled. I got hives all over my body, and my eyes swelled so much that I could barely open them. I had severe abdominal pain, and I threw up multiple times.

I almost went to the emergency room, but could not muster enough energy to get out of bed. Sleep would solve the problem, I reasoned, taking another dose of Benadryl. After all, the biggest worry during allergic reactions is that the throat will swell, cutting off the airway and a person's ability to breathe. That hadn't happened to me, so in all likelihood everything else would take care of itself. (Everything else, in other words, was only painful. Not life-threatening.)

It turned out that I was right, for the most part. Most of my symptoms diminished overnight, leaving me with puffy eyes and bone-deep exhaustion in the morning. I slept most of the day, and though I'm still not feeling well, I hope to get there by tomorrow. A happy ending: no emergency room visit involved.

I am lucky. There are many people in this world who have worse allergies, life-threatening ones. I should know -- my brother is one of them. Allergies like those mean carrying EpiPens, questioning the labels on everything, and interrogating cooks at restaurants. I've always felt like my allergies are just "no big deal" in comparison. And it's true, my allergies are not life-threatening. But after my experience over the last day, I've learned that I cannot treat them like "no big deal" any more.

My allergies are not simply an inconvenience, even though that's how I've been treating them. They are painful and frightening, and they demand more attention than I have given them in the past.

I know there are people like me out there, people with moderate food allergies, people who consider this allergy to be a mere inconvenience -- nothing to fuss over. And this may be so. But after my experience, I will be taking a number of steps to prevent such occurrences in the future, and I highly recommend anyone with this level of allergy do the same.

1. I will carry at least one dose of Benadryl with me at all times in eating situations. This is just common sense, and something I should have been much better about in the past.

2. I will not be shy about asking about ingredients on a restaurant menu, even if it seems like the dish will not be a problem. This is not about being picky. This is not about seeming pushy. This is about protecting my health.

3. I will be visiting a general physician in the near future to have a full allergy test done. This may not be necessary for many of you other allergic folk out there, but the last time I had an allergy test done, I was about seven years old. You forget things after fourteen years, and you almost certainly didn't understand them well enough to begin with. Also, some allergies can develop or disappear given enough time. My server on Wednesday night assured me repeatedly that there were no nuts in the dish I had ordered. It's possible (though unlikely) that I have developed an allergy I don't even know about yet. (Certainly it would explain the severity of my reaction if this is the case, as I've never had anywhere near the same level of reaction with any previous encounters with nuts.)

In short, I will be taking steps to be much more careful in the future. I've treated my allergies like no big deal in the past, and I've been careless. If you have an allergy like mine, manifesting in relatively minor reactions (scratchy throat, sleepiness, etc.), I strongly recommend that you make sure you are prepared and knowledgeable in the event of a stronger attack. It may not happen to you. It may never happen to you. But I was sick as a dog last night after a lifetime of very minor reactions, and it scared me badly. I thought I knew what to expect from my allergies, but I was wrong, and I was unprepared for the consequences.

Anyone have any tips for living with food allergies? I'm in an advice-collecting mood, so feel free to share in the comments.

This has been a public service announcement from your scared-prepared book-blogging buddy. Be prepared and stay safe, everyone.