Use your EpiPen!

Nut-allergic Ruth Holroyd encourages fellow allergics to use their EpiPen. On two occasions she did not – and only just survived...

Who would have thought that I, a 36-year-old intelligent young woman, would suffer two severe anaphylactic attacks in the last two years, both with my EpiPen in my bag, and still not take action and administer the medicine that could have reversed the reaction and hastened recovery… and potentially saved my life.

I have been lucky. I have also been stupid and careless and should have known better. I wanted to share my experience in case it is similar to other allergy sufferers, and also in the hope that others can learn from my mistakes.

My own allergy
My history of nut allergy goes back to my childhood. I used to have attacks of vomiting and sickness once or twice a year usually around Christmas or birthdays. The time of year when chocolates are given as gifts and more readily available in the house.

I grew up in a fairly poor family. I never really felt I was missing out but we never had chocolates in the house or snacks as kids do nowadays. We rarely went out for meals and life was much simpler. Home-cooked food and simple basic ingredients. I know I didn’t like nuts but that was as far as it went.

My mum made the connection when I had a reaction from crisps that were put into a bowl which had just been finished and cleared of its peanuts – but not washed. Over the years I’ve had the odd allergic reaction, usually showing itself in asthma, skin irritation and vomiting. I had never had the throat swelling reactions you hear about – until recently. My doctor prescribed an EpiPen – but I am very careful when eating out and check labels religiously when shopping.

I always used to get a tingling on my lips and in my mouth within seconds of eating any nuts. Consequently I’ve always stopped eating the offending food and only had minor sickness. Until recently, when the pattern seemed to change.

Changing pattern
Two years ago I had lunch in a local café. I ordered a salad. Perhaps my guard was down. In my head salad is safe. It was a simple chicken and bacon salad. I asked for no dressing – but somehow a dressing had been used. I found out later that it was a pesto dressing, but at the time I just enjoyed the salad and left to walk home over the fields to my house. It was a nice day and I love walking. After walking for about 30 minutes I was dreadfully thirsty and felt as though I was having an asthma attack. I took my inhaler and drank some water from my bottle and kept walking.

I was nearly home when I realised it was more than thirst and an asthma attack. I got some very funny looks from passers-by. When I put my hand to my face a realised it was swelling fast and I was now struggling to walk at all. Somehow I managed to get home. I took antihistamines, drank lots of water and hot tea, sucked ice cubes and applied an ice compact to my throat. I think I did know that I should ring my husband or ring an ambulance. But I couldn’t speak. I had no voice with the swelling. I just lay down and waited for it to pass. Completely crazy behaviour. I should have known better.

And again...
Last year I had a reaction in the summer when out with work colleagues. It was a surprise treat for all our hard work so I had not had time to do the usual… ‘Please can I have the number of the caterers so I can speak with them about my allergies?’ etc. I thought I was still being careful but I reacted to a pesto salad and I reacted in a big way. But the reaction was totally different to anything I had had before. Nothing untoward happened until about two hours after eating. We were on our way back to our hotel. I thought I was coming down with a sore throat. I felt asthmatic and my nose and eyes were streaming. I felt very uncomfortable. So when we got back to our hotel I made my excuses and went up to my room.

Before I knew what was happening I was itching all over and feeling quite out of control. I took an antihistamine and ran a cold bath. I still didn’t really know what danger I was in. My throat was getting more and more painful. I have a blurry memory of what happened next. I think I had a cold bath and sobbed in pain. My whole skin was erupting in blistery lumps. Ouch! Somehow I seemed to have texted one of my colleagues something and they obviously realised something was wrong.

Even then I didn’t realise quite what was happening. Not until they arrived at my door and I tried to speak did I realise how bad it was. I suddenly could not speak; my whole throat had closed up and I sounded like some kind of alien trying to talk. My face and eyes were swollen nearly shut. I managed to persuade them I was OK and they left me alone. If only one of them had persuaded me to take my adrenaline or phoned an ambulance. I am just eternally grateful that I did wake up the next morning – very sore but I survived. Second time lucky. I may not be so lucky third time around.

Don’t risk it...
I wanted to share my experience with others. I am embarrassed reading this now. It is so clear to me and blindingly obvious what was happening. But when you are actually in the throes of an anaphylactic attack the brain does not think logically. I hope and pray that I behave responsibly next time and take the necessary action.

I don’t know why I didn’t use my EpiPen on either of these occasions. Perhaps it was because I had no swelling or tingling in my mouth. I was not sick. The two major triggers I used to have were not symptoms in these two recent attacks.

My advice to fellow anaphylaxis sufferers is to tell all your family and friends that you have an allergy. Show them your EpiPen and demonstrate how to use it. Really drum into them that if they suspect you are having a reaction that they should take charge and administer the drugs. It’s easy and fast and simple to do.

Don’t stop and think. Don’t waste time. Just do it.
Use your EpiPen. If in doubt, still use it. Ring an ambulance and stay calm. If you can’t speak the emergency services will be able to locate where you are anyway by tracing your phone number. It could save your life. It will not do you any harm if you use your EpiPen when you think you might just get better naturally. That’s why we are prescribed them so let’s use them.

First published in 2009

If you found this article interesting, you will find many more articles on anaphylaxis here, and reports of research into anaphylaxis here.
You can also find articles on peanut and tree-nut allergy here, cow's milk allergies here, egg allergy here, histamine intolerance hereand articles on a wide range of other allergic and intolerance reactions to a wide range of other foods here.

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