The Only Person Who Knows Your Reactions Is You

Each year during Food Allergy Awareness Week, we dedicate a day to raise awareness of anaphylaxis, a serious and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. In this guest blog post, Rhett Needleman, a member of FARE’s Teen Advisory Group, offers insights into the importance of self-knowledge and prompt action when treating anaphylaxis. To learn more about how you can help save a life, take FARE’s free online anaphylaxis training, How to Save a Life: Recognizing and Responding to Anaphylaxis.

I’m allergic to tree nuts, sheep’s milk and goat’s milk, and I have exercise-induced anaphylactic reactions to wheat, shrimp and cow’s milk. Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with many anaphylactic reactions – too many to count on my fingers. And I must say from experience, they are not fun. However, as bad as reactions may be, I have learned a tremendous amount from them, and over the years I have become very well educated about my body’s response and how to take action. At first, I was scared, but now I understand how to deal with the situation and stay calm. My hope is that by sharing my experiences and newfound knowledge, I can help people with severe allergies and their families be able to recognize reactions and act promptly.

I was young when I had my first anaphylactic reaction, but I remember it like it was just yesterday. I had just gone out for pizza with family friends. At this time, I didn’t know about my allergies to sheep’s and goat’s milk, but I had previously experienced a slight allergic reaction to tree nuts. By the time I finished my slice of pizza, my throat was itching, and hives were forming on every visible spot of my body. In an attempt to stay calm, I vividly remember telling myself that it was nothing and it would go away in a few minutes. I was fine, or so I thought. I was in denial.

Eventually, my dad turned and looked at me in the back seat of the car while I was coughing, and he realized that my face was bright purple. From there we got home, and my mom gave me a Benadryl. My parents hesitated about whether to inject epinephrine or not. We thought it was best to wait it out to see if I got better.

I didn’t get better. My symptoms continued to worsen until it was time for my parents to take me to the hospital. That ended up being the worst night of my life. I spent 24-hours between two hospitals and suffered the reality of living with allergies. After that first anaphylactic reaction, I had a few more allergic reactions. Every time I would hope it was nothing, but it turned out to be a big something!

Two months ago I had another reaction after eating baked ziti. This was a much different situation, however. The second I ate the food, I felt right away that something was wrong. From there, I took Benadryl, and 10 minutes later I injected myself with an EpiPen. After doing that, I immediately went to the hospital, and I got out four hours later. Clearly this experience was very different from my first reaction because I’ve learned a lot over the years, including a few very important pieces of advice I would like to share.

One big thing I learned and want everyone with allergies to know is to never be in denial. When I had my first allergic reaction, all I wanted was for it to pass and for me to be okay. At the time, I was only 7 years old and wasn’t well educated on all the intricacies of allergies. However, I knew what an anaphylactic reaction was, and in that moment I was willing the reaction away. But I was having a serious reaction and because of the hesitation I had, the reaction was much worse and more harmful.

It truly is so important to understand that when a person looks puffy, is acting odd, or says they’re just not feeling right, you should alert someone immediately. If you’re the person with allergies, my suggestion is get to know your body well. The reality is that no matter how you look to others, the only person that truly knows how you are feeling is you, and you should be aware of that. This way, as soon as you start having a reaction, you will know without hesitation. Be honest with your friends, parents or caregivers and let them know you need help. Advocate for yourself instead of trying to brush it off as a minor reaction. If not, there is a very high chance that the reaction will become much worse and have a potential for something fatal to happen.

It is in everyone’s best interest to alert someone to what’s happening right away. I know that five minutes can make a huge difference, even life or death. So please, even if it’s the slightest feeling, and you know something is up, alert someone and take action as quickly as possible. Be a voice and make sure you seek help. Even if it turns out to be nothing, the adage better safe than sorry always applies to those with allergies.

My next piece of advice is to take your medication and get to the hospital as quickly as possible. Once you’ve become accustomed to recognizing your reactions, it is imperative to take action immediately. Assuming it’s an anaphylactic reaction, it’s so important to get to the hospital. Parents and caregivers tend to get scared once they realize their child is truly experiencing anaphylaxis. While it is a very scary thing, the situation has the potential to become exacerbated if immediate interventions aren’t taken. The hospital has all the necessary medication and protocols in place to tame your symptoms and make you feel better immediately. Trust me, I know from experience.

I’ve learned how to deal with my allergies and handle them properly. This has taken years of reactions and required more than just reading instructions and listening to doctors. I had to learn how to recognize a reaction by knowing my body, and I needed the courage to act immediately. Having an allergic reaction is a very scary thing and hard to live with, honestly, but always being ready to deal with a reaction is the best way to keep your allergies under control, so you can live your best possible life.