I remember the first time that I found out I was severely allergic to chilis. I had taken a bite of an innocuous looking food in the staff cafeteria — and thirty minutes later I could not breathe. I was bright red, I was coughing, I had chest pains, and I was slowly suffocating.
It was scary. Over time, it has become less of something I panic about, and more something I have created a plan to avoid. If I can’t avoid it, I have learned to advocate for myself. If somebody isn’t calling 9-1-1 fast enough, I am calling for myself. If someone doesn’t know how to give me my epipen, I am giving it to myself.
It was not always that easy. I am somebody who repeatedly has to put her life in the hands of others, and somebody who lives with the terrifyingly real possibility that any single bite of food could kill her. it makes life difficult, but not impossible. I thought I would extend my top 10 tips for those of you who may have just found out about your severe allergy. These are my tips for staying safe, and at worst, staying alive.
1) Your Epipen, Benadryl, Reactine, Puffers, etc are LITERALLY your lifeline. Pack them and take them everywhere you go. If you are more than 30 minutes away from medical care, pack at least two. They are your lifeline – and being without them could equal death.
2) Make sure you know when and how to use your Epipen, and that the people you are with most often know as well. Keep one at work, one in your bag, one at home. Teach those around you. Teach them that an Epipen doesn’t solve the problem, and that 9-1-1 ALWAYS needs to be called.
3) Food allergy? Pack your own snacks. Always. No exceptions. That way, if you are running late – or something unexpected comes up – you won’t be relying on fate. Ensure you own and are wearing a MedicAlert bracelet if you are severely allergic to anything. That way, you can ensure it will speak for you in the event you can’t speak for yourself.
4) DONT let others eat your snacks – unless you are handing them a piece. Cross contamination is a very real and very scary reality. And if your friends have allergies, don’t reach into their snack bag without being offered a piece.
5) Don’t bend on the above rule. If someone is mad you won’t share your safe foods – because it could kill you – they aren’t worth your time. It is actually a matter of life or death
6) Know your medical history and have it with you in case you can’t speak for yourself. My medic alert mini bag is constantly with me, and there is a copy at work. It contains up-to-date medical history – both medication and recent issues – as well as my health card number and personal information. I am an asthmatic, which makes my allergic reactions way worse, and its important that emergency personnel know this – as it changes how they treat me on site.
7) Know your numbers. Know who to call and when, and either take a phone charger with you or ensure you know where the nearest phone is located. Travelling? Make sure you know emergency numbers and the best way to communicate your illness. I have a list of four local people in my bag the hospital can call for me in the event of an emergency. They can all get a hold of my parents and/or fiance on my behalf.
8) Don’t be dumb. Sometimes, if you haven’t had an allergic reaction for a long time, you feel freer to take risks. It is a lesson that you should only learn once. Your life is NEVER worth taking a chance. I love eating out – but I can only eat out places where I plan ahead and call to make sure they are equipped to deal with my allergies. Sometimes, this means saying no to plans with friends.
9) Don’t ever be embarassed. I have literally stopped traffic – with hundreds of people staring at me while I receive oxygen on the side of a road. So what? It may not be how a woman wants to stop traffic, but its life. Its my life. Don’t be afraid to jump a line, borrow a phone, interrupt a class or exam. The urgency and impending doom feeling is there for a reason.
10) Be your own advocate. People will offer to drive you to the hospital, or say “just wait, maybe its not that bad.” YOU know your body best and YOU are the expert — if its time to call for help, don’t let anybody convince you otherwise (regardless of who they are, emergency personnel make wrong choices sometimes too!).
I hope that these ten tips make it easier for you to handle your life as a severely allergic individual, or help you understand someone in your life with severe allergies. It isn’t a death sentence, but it CAN be, if we don’t take the steps necessary to protect ourselves.