Peanut Anaphylaxis: The Most Frequently Asked Questions

peanut butter sandwichMost people aren’t regularly questioned about their diet, but when you live with anaphylaxis it’s just part of life.  People have a lot of questions because, unless someone has a family member or close friend who lives with anaphylaxis, the whole concept of a life-threatening allergy to some sort of food is pretty foreign.  And understandably so.  Anaphylaxis means so much more than just a limited diet—it means a limited life and a completely different style of living.

This doesn’t mean that I’m unable to have a full, satisfying life, though, but it does takes more planning and flexibility.

One thing that helps make living with anaphylaxis easier is when people take the time to understand, so I’ve compiled a list of the most common questions I’m asked:

1. Do you react to the smell of peanuts?

Nope.  Part of the general confusion about airborne anaphylaxis comes from when folks use the word “smell.”  People assume that when I say I have an airborne anaphylactic reaction it means I’m either reacting to, afraid of, or don’t like the smell of peanuts.  It really is impossible to react to just the smell itself, though, but that doesn’t mean airborne reactions to even trace amounts of the proteins in peanuts (what people are actually reacting to) aren’t real.

2. What is anaphylaxis?

Let’s look at a quick definition of anaphylaxis:

“Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can occur within seconds or minutes of exposure to something you’re allergic to, such as a peanut or the venom from a bee sting.

“The flood of chemicals released by your immune system during anaphylaxis can cause you to go into shock; your blood pressure drops suddenly and your airways narrow, blocking normal breathing … Anaphylaxis requires an immediate trip to the emergency department and an injection of epinephrine [Epi-Pen].  If anaphylaxis isn’t treated right away, it can lead to unconsciousness or even death.”  From the Mayo Clinic’s website.

Basically, anaphylaxis means someone could die, not just feel discomfort, if they’re exposed to their allergen.  It’s also so extreme that it’s considered a recognized ADA disability because it impairs breathing (which is why it can cause death).

I’m allergic to a bunch of trees and flowers, cows, tomatoes, soy, dairy, and the list goes on, but none of them besides peanuts and mushrooms—even though some of them are extremely unpleasant to have reactions to and could even result in me missing work—are anaphylactic reactions.  This doesn’t mean my other reactions aren’t a big deal, it just means they’re not life-threatening or a ADA recognized disability.

A lot of times there’ll be confusion when someone is talking about an anaphylaxis reaction and using the word “allergy” because everyone imagines the person is just breaking into hives or sneezing.  It’s really unfortunate that people too often imagine sneezing when an anaphylactic reaction to something like peanuts or a bee sting is actually closer to someone eating a deadly poison—death is a very realistic concern.

3.  Are you sure it’s anaphylaxis and not a panic attack?

Well, I didn’t self-diagnose myself as having anaphylaxis.  I told several doctors and allergists what was happening when I was exposed to peanuts, and they told me I’d learned the hard way that I have an airborne anaphylactic reaction to a protein in peanuts.

Also, important to note: some of my very worst anaphylaxis reactions have happened when someone was eating something peanut-y near me and I had no idea I was near peanuts until I started to choke.  My throat begins to close up and I’ll stop breathing if immediate action isn’t taken.  I’d look around quickly while reaching for my emergency Benadryl and Epi-Pens, knowing that I was reacting to something because I couldn’t breathe.  And then I’ll spot a peanut butter cookie or PB and J near me that I hadn’t seen or even smelled previously.

This has happened countless times—on the train, in a college classroom, at the ballet (the person behind me snuck a peanut butter sandwich in, and nobody knew), standing in line at Disneyland, and all kinds of other places.  I’ll tell whoever is with me, “I’m having trouble breathing!”  And we’ll both look around while getting me to an easily-accessible location in case the paramedics have to come and, oftentimes fairly quickly, we identify some peanut product that had previously escaped our notice.

I don’t have to smell the peanuts or even be aware that they’re in the same vicinity as me to react.  And, unfortunately, I’m so sensitive to the peanut protein I’m allergic to that it doesn’t require much exposure at all to send me into anaphylactic shock.  This is why whenever I go to my regular doctor or allergist I’m given the “you-could-die-if-you-didn’t-have-your-Epi-Pen” lecture (they’re always glad to see that it’s on my person).

4. Have you experienced an anaphylactic reaction before?

Yup, I sure have.  A number of times, unfortunately.  One of the most memorable was when I was in Disneyland with my fiancé and our families in September 2012.  A woman in front of us in line for a ride opened a treat with peanuts.  My throat began to close up, I took instant Benadryl but it didn’t work.  My fiancé, Mr. M, had to give me my Epi-Pen and call 911, and we spent about 10 hours in the ER room.  It was a terrifying start to our Disneyland vacation.

Usually my reactions don’t end up with me in the ER, but every single one of them has the possibility to become that serious.  And if I didn’t immediately take Benadryl every time, my peanut reactions would always lead to the ER because unfortunately the reactions don’t just wear off if I get fresh air or go away after a while—they get worse.

5.  Can’t you just leave the room when you’re having a reaction?

There’s sometimes the misunderstanding that because I’m so extremely sensitive to peanuts it’ll act as some kind of sixth sense—alerting me to the dangers before I start to have a major reaction.  Or that if I see peanut-y products, like candies or a PB and J, that I just need to get out of the area.

Unfortunately, by the time that I see something peanut-y that’s unwrapped or start to have a reaction (my throat starts closing up), it’s too late.  I always leave the room quickly, but at that point I’m already having a reaction.

By the time I notice unwrapped peanuts in an area, I’m smack-dab in the middle of a life-threatening medical emergency.  As a result, the only way to avoid anaphylactic reactions is by not being exposed to the allergen (in my case, peanuts) in the first place.

6.  Have you tried masking?

This is a very common suggestion that people make, and something I actually talked with my doctor about a while back.  It really does seem like a great idea at first, which I completely get because I’d wondered if it’d work, too.

My doctor said that the mask itself likely wouldn’t protect me from having anaphylactic reactions.  But the trouble is that even if I had a good enough mask that it did help while I wore it, if I were exposed to peanuts while wearing a mask I’d have a reaction as soon as I took the mask off.  For example, I’ve reacted to my clothing after having been exposed to peanuts.

It’s like if someone encountered a toxic spill; wearing a mask wouldn’t help because it would be on their clothing and everywhere.  As a result, once I get home from having a major reaction I have to shower and wash my clothes to make sure the particles are completely off of everything (after I have an anaphylactic reaction I’m much, much more sensitive even than normal so it’s very important to get everything as clean and peanut-free as possible).

7. Will you outgrow it?  

Sometimes—but not always—people who have food allergies as children will outgrow their allergies as they get older.  Not something to bank on, though and, if you’re talking to the parent of a child with food allergies, don’t tell them it’ll all be a-okay in a couple of years, because there’s no way of knowing if that particular child will be one of the lucky ones.  And they likely won’t be.

That said, I don’t even have the chance of being one of the lucky kiddos to outgrow my food allergies because my peanut allergy started when I was 21 (I’m 26 now for reference).  Those of us who develop food allergies as adults are more apt (I honestly don’t know why) do be anaphylactic.  And we also don’t outgrow our food foes.   

8. Can’t you just use your Epi-Pen?

A lot of people think that as long as I have my magical Epi-Pen on me that I’ll be fine, but all Epi-Pens truly do is override the anaphylactic reaction temporarily.  If I had to use my Epi-Pen it wouldn’t fix things; it’d mean I’d have to be rushed to the ER in an ambulance before the reaction returned with full force.  Basically, it just buys me a little more time (I’ve been told about twenty minutes, but I think it’d depend on the severity of the allergy).

It’s not a solution; it just provides me with enough time to hopefully get to the ER before going unconscious or dying.

Epi-Pens even say on the directions to call 911 immediately after using.  And, believe me, paramedics take it very seriously when you tell them you just had to use your Epi-Pen.

9. Can you take medication or get allergy shots?  

There’s no magic pill that will allow me to eat or be in the same room as peanuts.  Boy, it would be nice if there was, though.  And allergies shots are for your hay-fever variety of allergies, not food-induced anaphylaxis.

10. Do you miss peanuts?

I used to adore peanuts.  I’d even made up my own peanut-butter based mythology (whoever gets to eat the swirl at the top of a freshly opened jar of peanut butter got a wish).  And the summer of 2005, right after I graduated from high school, I lived in Hungary for about four months.  A land that was virtually void of my favorite snack, so my mom mailed me a jar of creamy Skippy every month.

That was then.  Now peanuts and peanut butter are no longer a homey treat when I’m far away—they’re something I have to spend my entire life avoiding.  So even though I was extra fond of peanut butter originally, I don’t miss eating the sticky, gooey product out of the jar.  What I truly miss is the convenience of not having to live a peanut-focused life thanks to anaphylaxis.

Check out my article on how my peanut reaction truly impacts life on a daily basis: Life in a Nutshell: How Anaphylaxis Impacts My Life


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12 thoughts on “Peanut Anaphylaxis: The Most Frequently Asked Questions

  1. I am the same with Benadryl to start, unless I know it’s time for the epi! Thank you for sharing your experiences with airborne allergies! This is something I struggle with, people definitely have a hard time experiencing this.

    • That’s the way to go! It really is something people have a hard time understanding–it’s so foreign and strange to them. And there are a lot of myths about airborne anaphylactic reactions (like, just take your Epi-Pen and you’ll be fine).

      Thanks for commenting. I appreciate hearing from other anaphylactic blogging peeps! 🙂

      ~Kelsey

    • Thank you for commenting, Becky! I’ve had some issues with trolls on my blog recently, so I felt a little nervous about posting this (the trolls were bent out of shape about food allergies, thought they didn’t exist, etc.). As a result, a comment from someone who understands and deals with anaphylaxis on daily basis is appreciated.

      How old is your daughter?

      ~Kelsey

  2. hi kelsey–i am 33 and living with food allergies. thanks for posting this info, since i’m trying to keep up on my allergy news. i have anaphylaxis to brazil nuts, though i have had reactions to food that i wasn’t sure exactly was in it (like ground nuts for ice cream topping). when i was little, i would have reactions and run into my room and hide … thank goodness i survived! nut allergies were not on anyone’s radar back in the 1980s.

    i’m also asked about the “smell” question a lot. i haven’t yet had a reaction by airborne protein but i know these things change. i just hope my luck continues to hold out. i work in a corporate setting, and it is scary. our office chairs were moved around one day, and i freaked out because i got someone else’s chair. i never did find my first chair so now i have my new one labeled (after i did a thorough wipe down). i also live in fear of shaking people’s hands. i try to avoid it but it isn’t always possible. some peeps can be very aggressive with thier handshake needs 🙂

    keep on fighting the good fight, and thanks for sharing your adventures! it’s hard for us adult allergy sufferers … we’re like the early explorers of anaphylaxis, showing the rest of the world how not to kill us!

    • Melissa,

      Thank you so much for commenting! It’s always great to hear from other people living with food allergies, especially adults because so many of the blogs seem to be geared more towards parents of allergic children rather than the allergy sufferers themselves.

      Thank goodness you survived childhood! How scary! And I completely agree, we are like the early explorers of anaphylaxis, showing the rest of the world how to not kill us. And that, yes, it really could kill us!

      I hope you’ll comment again. 🙂

      ~Kelsey

  3. I developed my allergies at 19. At first it was around 5, peanuts included. Now that I’m 23 and lots of skin and blood tests I have 30+ allergies. I can be around peanuts and fly. For I have to be worried about it getting g worse? My wheat allergy has become way worse the more I ate it. From mild facial flushing. To stomach cramps and feeling woozy! Any advice?

    • Hi Amanda! Thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s great to hear from another 20-something living with multiple allergies.

      Over 30 allergies, yikes! I have celiac disease and about 17+ food allergies (anaphylactic to mushrooms and peanuts) and chemical and seasonal allergies, so I really empathize with how hard and even downright scary that can be.

      It sounds like since your allergies (or at least the wheat one) actually got worse the more you ate it, that doing your best to avoid your allergens completely (even if the reactions don’t seem that bad) would probably be the safest bet. My allergist told me that sometimes when someone is being exposed to much to things they’re allergic to that they can become hypersensitive. It had come up because I was so hypersensitive to EVERYTHING I’m even a little allergic to that I was even having to carry my own soap in my purse because I couldn’t use the kinds in public bathrooms; I was more sensitive to my seasonal allergies food allergies (even anaphylaxis) at that time, too.

      While there’s no way to guarantee that a peanut allergy won’t get worse (mine started off airborne and anaphylaxis though when it developed at 21), but keeping your general allergen exposure down can help everything. I’ve found that even though my peanut anaphylaxis isn’t going anywhere, the more I try to keep all of my other exposure as low as possible the more manageable even my anaphylaxis is (when I’m hypersensitive I can go into anaphylactic shock from just walking by someone with peanuts where usually that might cause an allergic reaction, and it would be scary, but I wouldn’t automatically end up in the ER). So think about avoiding even your minor allergies (whether it be food, chemical, seasonal, whatever) as a way of keeping your overall sensitivity level down.

      ~Kelsey

  4. Thankyou for writing this. I thought I was going crazy! My number one allergen is bananas. I cant be in the same room as one. It doesnt matter if its opened or not… Of coarse if its opened its alot worse. of coarse now Icant even be around someone who eats the fruit. I even have had a reaction a hour and half after some kids ate bananas at daycare, then came in my classroom. As amatter of fact, my worst case was in the ER when a nurse came in after eating one on break:(
    I also have reactions to kiwi, passion fruit, dragon fruit, water melons, all melons, citrus.
    Today after the ids sat down to eat snack, i started to clear my throat, cough and realized my tongue was swelling up. I started to look for the culprit while digging for benadryl……. one of the kids was drinking a fruit punch:(
    donna,

    • Donna,

      I’m so so sorry you live with anaphylaxis too! It impacts every part of life and makes everything so much more scary. Even little things like going to the grocery store become either terrifying or completely out of the question. You’re not crazy, there just aren’t a whole lot of us anaphylactic folks. Thank you for commenting; I always appreciate hearing that I’m not alone, too. ((HUGS))

      ~Kelsey

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