Growing up with allergies was considered the “norm” in our family. I’m pretty sure that every one of my 4 sisters have allergies to random things and my brother has anaphylactic allergies to eggs. I don’t know how mum managed to remember all of our individual allergies, but we were all aware of them ourselves, so we never had too many issues apart from the occasional rashes and lip swelling. Antihistamines were always in stock in the house and we all knew when and how to take them from a young age. When I was in primary school I was diagnosed with Dermatographic urticari, or “skin writing” where my body over produces histamines on contact. My friends would spend hours writing on my arms and legs with the back of pens or blunt objects to see how far my skin would welt. It was itchy as hell, but a good party trick none the less. Over time my body started to react with even the lightest pressure from clothes and underwear and by the end of the day I would be covered in welts head to toe.
When I started my TAFE diploma in Dental Assisting I began to have severe allergies to latex gloves. The first reaction was when I was chair side assisting and my hands began to burn and itch incredibly. I ripped my latex gloves off and a layer of skin came with them. My hands were raw and swollen, covered in welts and small blisters. I ran my hands under cold water for a long time, but the burning was intense. My clinical tutor wrapped my hands in wet towels and drove me to the nearest medical center where they gave my anti histamines and diagnosed me with a latex allergy. After a few years working in the dental industry, even if someone was donning and doffing their latex gloves near me I began having trouble breathing. Thankfully after having children my latex anaphylaxis seems to have calmed a little bit but I still work in a latex free surgery.
When I moved to the Adelaide Hills with my now husband, Andrew, I went walking around our farm with him through our hay field. While walking I began to feel very itchy and blocked nasally. Andrew had walked in front of me a little so I turned my phone on and took a photo of my face. I was so shocked! One eye was virtually swollen shut and my whole face was red and puffed up. I ran inside the house, washed my face several times and took a handful of antihistamines. My face continued to swell and my whole body was covered in large welts. I jumped in the shower but the water burned so badly that I cried in pain. I tried to call Andrew who was still in the fields, but living in the Hills our phone service at that point was very limited and I couldn’t get hold of him. My breathing was getting very difficult so I took stronger antihistamines, administered my ventolin and laid on the bed with a cold face washer on my face desperatly hoping I wouldn’t collapse or die before Andrew came back home. When he walked in the door and said to me “What happened babe, why did you run off without saying anything?” I took my face washer off and one look at my face made him gasp. He knew I had allergies but had never seen me have such a severe one before. He ran down to his sister’s house (also on our property) and came back with her son’s oxygen tank that he had for sleep apnea. Just as I was about to make the decision to call an ambulance, my anti histamines kicked in and I started to feel better with the oxygen, my ventolin that I had taken so much that I was shaking uncontrollably, 3 different types of antihistamines and the cold compress. I noticed later that day that my hearing was very muffled, when I went to work the next day there was an anesthetist in our surgery that checked my ears and throat and confirmed that they were both very swollen and wrote me a prescription for my first EpiPen®. I showed him the photos that I had taken of myself, he scolded me for not calling an ambulance straight away and told me who close I was to being in real trouble.
Over the years my allergy list has grown to include citrus foods (lemons, oranges, tomatoes, kiwi fruit etc), bananas, sodium laureth sulphate (foaming agent found in many toothpastes, shampoos, dish washing liquid and body/hand washes) and anaphylaxis to Latex, penicillin (which I had my first anaphylaxis to when I was given it via IV while I was pregnant with our twins), wattle flowers and flowering hay. Andrew and I got married on our hills property in Spring 2012. We had spent months in the paddock preparing the area for the day, mowing, pruning, clearing and pulling weeds. The day before the wedding we were doing some last minute gardening when I had an anaphylactic attack to an unknown allergen. I decided to leave the property and check into our honeymoon suite a day early to hopefully let my face recover from the severe swelling. Unfortunately I wasn’t so lucky. The morning of the wedding I woke up next to my good friend and rolled over anxiously asking how my face looked. Her response? “We can fix it”. I was devastated. We went to a local chemist and asked for as many over the counter drugs as he could give me. When I said to him “you have to help me, I’m getting married today” he replied “Oh dear. Ok, let’s try these…” handing me over a concoction of medications to try. Thankfully they did reduce the swelling, but in many of my photos it’s very obvious that my eyes are still very swollen and I had trouble keeping my false eyelashes in place with eyes that were constantly watering.
Recently I had neurosurgery for an unrelated medical condition and I listed my allergies, making sure that everyone was very aware of my anaphylactic reactions. A few hours after I came out of recovery I told my attending nurse that my stomach was very itchy and asked what kind of dressing had been used. She looked at my stomach and was shocked at how swollen and red it was. She quickly removed the dressings which again took a layer of skin with the sticky adhesive. She checked the box of the dressing and couldn’t find any allergy warnings. She drew a pen line around the border of the red area to monitor the swelling and got the attending doctor to look at me. By the time the doctor came the redness was extending past the pen borders. I was given IV antihistamines and my oxygen was increased. The staff researched the brand of dressing online and found that it did indeed have a latex content. This reaction caused by a dressing containing a reasonably common allergen that was not sufficiently labelled, caused my hospital stay to be prolonged by several days.
Living with my own allergies has been a constant struggle. I can only wear certain brands of underwear that don’t have latex in the bands and I can never wear strapless bras as they all contain a “grippy strip” that is made of latex. I have even had reactions to things such as garden tools and dish washing brushes that have rubber handles. I’ve had an anaphylaxis in a restaurant where the kitchen staff touched my food with latex gloves. I have to look at ingredient lists carefully and usually can only use the more expensive brands of body wash/shampoo etc. that don’t contain foaming agents. But more recently I’ve even had to deal with my 3 beautiful children also inheriting my Type 2 allergies. Alexander,3, has an anaphylactic allergy to penicillin and cefeclor (ceclor antibiotic) and he is asthmatic (which is also common with people that have multiple allergies) and my 2 year old twins also have anaphylactic allergies to latex, which was discovered when they were born 7 weeks premature and IV tubes were secured with latex dressings in the neonatal unit.
My husband has had CPR and EpiPen® training in case I am ever not well enough to administer to myself or he needs to give to one of the children. He is well aware of the implications of how dire things can be if one of us are exposed to one of our known allergens. But scarier is the very real potential that any one of us can suddenly and unexpectedly new allergies without warning. The cost of EpiPens® in Australia is ridiculous given that they have a very short shelf life and are quite unstable when not stored in a constant temperature, which mine are often not given I carry them in my handbag.
The need for allergy awareness is so important. Not only for ourselves and our own children, but also for everyone around us. A latex balloon in a tote bag from a children’s birthday party can be life threatening. As can any allergies that may arise without warning when my children are at daycare or school without me. The general public have such minimal knowledge about allergies and it’s really alarming. Thanks to people like Pooja and Matthew Newman, the founders of Globalaai, finally EpiPens® are starting to be included in CPR and defibrillator units that are found in public places. But more training needs to happen before we are at the point where I feel that I can venture in public, truly safe from an anaphylactic attack.