Navigating a Nut Allergy
I have struggled (and thrived) living with a peanut allergy all my life. Recently a mother asked me what that was like since her daughter was just diagnosed. It seems that allergies, especially peanut allergies, are becoming more common. Though I am not a doctor – please note!—I would like to give my testimony here as to what it is like living with a peanut allergy for the benefit of those who have children with this condition, or for parents who struggle with it themselves.
Signs and Symptoms
One thing that many people ask me is how I first knew that I had an allergy. Here are some tell-tale signs (source: www.mayoclinic.org):
-itchiness in the mouth or throat
-a tingling sensation or numbness on the tongue
-swelling (ears, lips, throat, mouth, hands, feet)
-blotchy skin, rash or hives within 2h of consumption
-feeling like you are going to be sick
-extreme redness in the eyes
-nasal congestion, wheezing or trouble breathing
-abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting
-dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting
Of course, these symptoms could signify other ailments as well, but the important thing to note is that these happen within a short period of time after having eaten an allergen.
how much of an allergen is necessary to cause a reaction?
Even trace amounts of an allergen can trigger an allergic reaction, but the allergen has to be ingested. So you could induce vomiting if you think your child has eaten an allergen that they are allergic to. This is a better solution than Benadryl, or antihistamines (again I am not a doctor, but this has worked for me).
Many people with allergies get irritated by the smell of an allergen. Smells or physical contact with a food allergen will not cause an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis, but it may cause some allergy symptoms (such as hives). Most people with allergies probably have a psychological aversion to the smell of their allergen, so at the least being in close proximity will make them nervous. (You can read more at www.foodallergy.org).
Anaphylaxis: A Life threatening reaction
-constriction of airways
-swollen throat or difficulty breathing
-shock with severe drop in blood pressure
-dizziness leading to loss of consciousness
The reaction to these symptoms should be to use an epipen, which contains epinephrine. This gives the person in shock about twenty minutes to get to the hospital. If the symptoms are very severe, call an ambulance, because time is of essence. The epipen does not cure the anaphylaxis, it only delays the symptoms and gives a person time to get to the hospital. Note: antihistamines (like Benadryl) do not stop the life-threatening symptoms of anaphylaxis (See: www.foodallergy.org).
Going to the hospital
If the symptoms are less severe, I find it safer to go to the hospital anyway. You can watch yourself (or your child). If the symptoms do not become more severe within the first thirty minutes to an hour after exposure, they may not become any worse, but the time window for an allergic reaction is generally two hours after having consumed the allergen. If you have had a severe reaction, watch for the second reaction, the rebound, that may happen a few hours later, even if the anaphylaxis has been properly treated the first time. You don’t need to be re-exposed to the allergen in order to have a rebound or biphasic allergic reaction. If you/your child can, stay in the hospital for several hours after a severe reaction, or with the recommendation of the doctor.
What to eat after a reaction
Try eating foods that are mushy (I know, sounds gross) but these are easy to digest and give your body time to heal and repair itself. My experience is that it took my digestive tract about three weeks to feel normal again. I subsisted mostly on soup. I avoided all cruciferous vegetables, raw vegetables, legumes or other foods that take a lot of energy to digest.
How did I know I had an allergy?
When I was younger I could eat peanuts. I liked their salty taste too. But I remember once when my mother gave me a peanut butter sandwich I couldn’t get past one bite. I refused to eat more. It was hard to tell if this was pickiness or a sensitivity because I was certainly a picky eater! I naturally avoided peanuts and peanut butter after that incident.
Later I ate something with peanuts (a cookie) and felt a tingling in my mouth. These symptoms progressed, in my second exposure, to feeling sick to my stomach. My peanut allergy continued to worsen through exposure. I would accidentally eat something with peanuts and this would cause an increased allergic reaction.
Some things I did not expect to find peanuts in:
-a cookie that someone told me was nut-free
-hot chocolate (someone added peanut butter)
-a chocolate-dipped pretzel
Sometimes it was me who was careless in not carefully reading the ingredients of something (especially when I was extremely hungry or in a rush).
Just Avoid the Dessert
Whenever I have had an allergic reaction (and it has happened to me several times), it has almost every time been due to dessert or snacks. Of course, peanuts tend to be in desserts more than staple foods, but they are also in main dishes, especially Asian cuisines.
My conclusion from my various experiences is that if you have a peanut allergy, do not eat any dessert that you are unable to read the ingredients list for. After trial and error, I have learned that it is no one’s responsibility but my own to make the judgment as to whether something is safe to eat. People might be kind and insist on reading the ingredients for me, but I don’t like to leave the responsibility in their hands. Also, I have been in the situation before where someone told me something definitely didn’t have peanuts (and it definitely did!)
At a party or a wedding, I usually avoid the dessert table unless I’m able to find out the ingredients. It might be difficult for your son or daughter who has an allergy to understand why they can’t partake in dessert. Come prepared with a special dessert for them, though sometimes restaurants or banquet halls will accommodate for allergies.
For you or your child with an allergy: bring peanut free snacks with you so you don’t feel tempted to munch on food that you are not sure may contain peanuts. Always eat a little before going to cocktails or potlucks so you are in a good frame of mind that will help you avoid making desperate decisions because you are hungry.
World Cuisines that cook with peanuts:
Watch for: phad thai, satay sauce (aka. bumbu kacang, sambal kacang or pecel)
Some African nations often enjoy peanut sauce with dishes (especially soups, stews and sauces)
In Africa, peanuts are usually known as “ground nuts”
peanut butter is sometimes used as a thickener
peanut oil is popular
peanuts are referred to in English as a “groundnut”
avoid Indian buffet, chutney, sweets (Bhel puri, Jhal Muri, Bombay mix)
Indian cooking often uses peanut oil
butter chicken sometimes has ground cashews or other nuts
mole and enchilada sauce
peanuts can be found in dumplings, peanut butter may be used to seal eggrolls
my recommendation for an authentic Chinese restaurant (where waiters and chefs speak mainly Mandarin or Cantonese) is to go with a Chinese friend who can clearly explain the severity of your allergy. I have done this to great success and enjoyed a lot of authentic Chinese food.
be less concerned with American-Chinese restaurants, which are often aware of allergies and do not always have nuts in their kitchen
You are usually safe with:
although avoid fusion sushi, which sometimes uses peanut butter. Stick to very authentic Japanese restaurants that do not combine with other cuisines.
usually American restaurants are very aware of peanut allergies and their severity, so you can easily be safe when you explain you or your child has a peanut allergy.
Southern cuisine likes to cook with peanut oil. Avoid deep-fried foods.
I have traveled in most countries in Europe and they are usually very accommodating for allergies. Be careful to find out the local word for peanut, however. In Canadian French we say “arachide” but in France they say “marron.” It’s better to say no nuts: “sans noix.”
-Russian or Eastern European
avoid however their desserts and pastries
also note: food allergies, especially peanut allergies, are rare in Russia and doctors may not know what to do if you tell them you are having an anaphylactic
reaction (it happened to me, long story). But as for Russian or Eastern European restaurants located in NA, their main dishes do not traditionally have peanut.
Camping or roommates:
Always inform the people you are traveling with that you have a severe peanut allergy. Ask your friends to not bring nuts if you are camping (especially since you may not be able to quickly get to a hospital).
My roommates (and now my husband!) were very understanding about my allergy and agreed to not buy peanut butter. I encouraged some alternatives if they liked: almond butter, sunflower butter, Nutella, and WOW butter.
In a cafeteria setting where peanut butter is offered, always use a plate to prepare your food. Avoid other jams or shared spreads where there may have been cross contamination.
Most people with allergies sadly are not able to eat at ice cream parlours. That is, unless you can find out some information from the chef. I have been able to eat at ice cream parlours when the servers have offered to get ice cream for me “from the back.” In this case, they offer to serve me from a fresh container that has never been opened before with a sterilized scoop. In this case, remember to ask if the ice cream is made in the same machine as other peanut/nut ice creams. Sometimes they use different machines to make the ice cream, sometimes they don’t.
Also: I have had more success with sorbet and frozen yogurt, both of which are usually made in different machines from ice cream.
I hope this article was helpful to you! If you have any comments please leave them below:)