You’re out to dinner, about to devour your scrumptious plate of surf and turf, when you break out in an embarrassing case of hives all over your face and neck.
Like always, your steak came perfectly paired with a side of lobster tail - which caused your first-ever allergic reaction to shellfish.
Surprise! You’re allergic to crustacea - lobster, crab and shrimp. (And, people often experience this particular food allergy for the first time as adults.)
When you’re brand-new to food allergies, it’s totally normal and OK to feel overwhelmed at the changes you need to make to your diet and lifestyle.
The good news is over time, it’ll start to feel more manageable - and you’ll enjoy your turf, just without the surf.
And you’re not alone - 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies.
Get to Know Your Trigger Food
First things first, when you experience any unusual or adverse reaction to a food, it’s a smart idea to get yourself to an allergist pronto, who can diagnose you with specific allergies after some testing.
Basically, when you’re exposed to your particular food trigger, your allergic reaction kicks in because your immune system attacks proteins in the food that are normally harmless.
While there are a reported 170 foods that cause allergies, the most common are milk, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, wheat, soy, shellfish and fish, and sesame.
So, here’s your number one order of business: Learn how to avoid your allergens.
You’ll find a whole host of online resources like these allergen primers on milk, peanuts, shellfish or wheat from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) or this huge interactive list of allergy-friendly products from SnackSafely.com.
Get to Know Your Symptoms
Allergic reactions aren’t one-size-fits-all - and it’s totally likely you’ll experience different symptoms from one reaction to the next.
You might just experience mild symptoms like an itchy mouth, rash or hives. More severe reactions include a tightened throat, difficulty breathing, chest pain or a drop in blood pressure.
Also, while ingesting your trigger food is the primary cause of reactions, in some cases skin contact or breathing in a food protein can spark symptoms.
Even steam from cooking shellfish can ignite a reaction, so if shellfish is your Trojan horse, you should avoid seafood joints.
Symptoms can start as soon as a few minutes after eating, and as long as two hours after. Sometimes, you can even experience what’s called a biphasic reaction, a second wave of symptoms that insidiously hits hours after the first.
And not to be a downer, but anaphylaxis, which comes on suddenly and can even cause death, is the most severe and life-threatening reaction.
The most effective treatment is using an epinephrine auto-injector, so take your medication wherever you go. It really can be a matter of life and death.
Your allergist is your first line of defense, so ask her to brief you on symptoms, and how and when to use emergency meds, as well as what over-the-counter antihistamines (or other methods) you should use to combat mild symptoms.
She can also help fill out a food allergy and anaphylaxis emergency care plan for you to share with your family and human resources department.
Get Back to Normal
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for food allergies - straight talking here, the only foolproof way to prevent a reaction is to totally avoid your allergen (and carry an epinephrine auto-injector).
While peanut, tree nut, shellfish and fish allergies are usually lifelong, sometimes people outgrow milk, egg, wheat and soy allergies, which start in childhood.
One habit to incorporate right now into your daily routines is reading food labels and asking questions about ingredients in foods you order out or haven’t prepared yourself.
And while it won’t be smooth sailing from day one (you can find support groups online), you’ll learn how to adjust your diet to be just as fulfilling as it was before.
Next up: Look for our blog post on tips for understanding food labels when you have a food allergy