Thursday, June 27, 2013

Anyone, Anytime

I was seventeen when I had my first anaphylactic reaction. So, you can see why I am frustrated when people assume food allergies, peanut in particular for some reason, only affect children. Yes, most recorded initial diagnoses are in children. But most do not outgrow the allergy, they are still just as allergic as adults. And many people do not develop their allergy until they are older.

The onset of my allergies seems to correspond to the beginning of my other auto-immune symptoms. I'm going only on hindsight, I wasn't diagnosed with Hashimoto's until I was 28. But I had been dealing with the symptoms for several years (lack of energy, wild fluctuation in weight without change in diet or level of exercise, intolerance to cold, low blood pressure, dry skin, depression, swollen neck, etc.)

Research is still being done, but there seems to be a strong correlation between people who have auto-immune disorders and food allergies. My endocrinologist also seems to think there is a connection between the two. An auto-immune disorder is diagnosed when the body attacks its own tissue. Mine is organ specific, it attacks my thyroid. Allergies happen when the immune system attacks other things (pollen, dander, food) as if it is an invasive disease. It makes sense that if someone's immune system is already attacking things it shouldn't, it might be more likely to make the same mistake with something else.

That being said, auto-immune disorders are rare in children. The majority seem to be diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s. And this is only one possible reason for an adult onset food allergy.

I think my late onset has given me a unique perspective. And it has given me some additional struggle. I was a senior in high school when  had my first severe reaction and we figured out why I felt sick all the time. By the time we knew how severe the allergies were and how to handle them, I was living on my own. My parents never learned how to live with me as I am now. They don't seem to really get what kinds of precautions to take. Sometimes they forget entirely.

Other people that knew me as a child seem confused. I've heard "but you used to eat X." I've also discovered people that think I'm faking it. I guess, to an outside observer, it can seem strange. As a child I did eat peanuts and tree nuts without a problem. As a teenager, I babysat often and made peanut butter sandwiches and survived. When I was 15, I had a job at camp that involved a lot of washing dishes, many of which would not be safe now.

When I was 16, I started getting intestinal cramps every time I ate peanuts. I started to notice the correlation myself, but my mother and the doctor both thought the abdominal pain might be something else, so we looked for ovarian cysts. Then they thought it was menstrual cramping. Next, stressed induced. A year later, I ate Asian food cooked in peanut oil and had my first bout of anaphylaxis. I finally got to see an allergist and confirmed my suspicion.

Knowing my experience, some of the people around me still assume food allergies are a children's thing.

When my current church was debating and constructing its new nut-free policy, one of the suggestions was that we only keep children's events nut-free. The person suggested this knowing I was in the room, and knowing I was allergic. Which implies either they think I'm a child (I'm in my 30s), or they're telling me I'm not welcome. When I pointed out that all of the people with food allergies in our congregation happen to be adults (there are at least three of us), they gave up that particular angle. But I'm still not entirely convinced that person really gets it.

Anyone can develop an allergy at any time in their life. Our bodies are always changing. We need to get out of the mindset that food allergies are a children's disease, and start working to be inclusive everywhere.

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