It can happen quickly, and symptoms and severity can change from one reaction to the next. When this severe allergic reaction occurs, it must be treated right away with epinephrine to prevent life-threatening complications. Epinephrine is safe and is prescribed in an easy-to-use device called an auto-injector. It is the first line of treatment for anaphylaxis.
But there was a time when epinephrine auto-injectors weren't always available. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn't require food manufacturers to label for the top 8 food allergens. Most of the general public didn't know much about food allergies, if at all. Yet people with food allergies still had to find a way to manage without the resources and knowledge available now.
KFA member JoanMarie has had food allergies her entire life. She grew up in the 1960s when people didn’t have many safe food options, allergy-friendly recipes and epinephrine auto-injectors. In her story below, she shares her experience to help us see how far food allergy management has come since then.
I've been reflecting on the fact that 50 years ago this month, I had my first trip to the emergency treatment for an anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.
I’ve had peanut, tree nut and coconut allergies all my life. Up until then, I vomited whenever I ate something I was allergic to. My pediatric allergist who diagnosed my food allergies by skin test never mentioned the possibility of anaphylaxis. (I’ve only learned recently that at the time doctors didn’t warn people of anaphylaxis because they thought it would “scare” them.)
The first time I had anaphylaxis was in high school. I had purchased a chocolate candy bar at lunch. It had no ingredient list (not absolutely required at that time). It didn’t look as if it had peanuts.
By the next class after lunch, I was covered with hives and my throat was closing. I went to the school nurse who knew immediately what was happening and called my doctor who told me to come in. They called my mother, and she came to school and drove me to the doctor’s office for an epinephrine injection. (There were no epinephrine auto-injectors at the time. You simply had to go to the emergency room and hope you made it in time.) Up until then, I had no idea that my life was in danger. No one had told me. (After that, of course, I knew.)
In some ways, it was easier to cope with food allergies in the 1960s. No food or beverages were allowed in the classroom. (I was reprimanded in second grade for putting a cough drop in my mouth in class. That was considered “candy.”) We only ate at lunch.
Food was also discouraged in offices. We were to eat lunch in the office lunchroom.
Also, it was very, very rare to find cereal that had nuts in it. A wide variety of food products did not have nut or peanut products in it, including cookies and candy.
(All of this started to change in the 1980s.)
On the other hand, few people had heard of food allergies. My mom and dad certainly hadn’t. Until I was officially diagnosed, my dad would tell me that my reaction to peanuts was “all in my head.” Lucky for me, I found the taste and smell of nuts and peanuts revolting (still do) and refused to eat them. (I only ate food with nuts and peanuts if I wasn’t aware the food had nuts or peanuts in it). My mom didn’t serve food with nuts and peanuts for meals ever since I would not eat it.
I did not meet anyone else with food allergies until I was well into adulthood.
I’m posting this for those who aren’t aware how people with food allergies lived in the past. Also, as I’m sure all of you know, there are people who say, “No one had food allergies when I was a child.” That’s false. There were. We just weren’t very visible.