Ok, y’all. I’m going to put this out there because apparently my husband, who’s been living with me and my allergies for 17 years now, didn’t know this. Hell, even I didn’t realize some of this. So I’m going to do my best to make this public knowledge.
First, anaphylactic shock can be progressive. It gets worse with each exposure to the allergen in question. This is so important for you to know. Frequently, as with me, your throat doesn’t close and kill you the first time you are exposed to something. It’s not uncommon to not need an Epipen (or even Benadryl) the first time someone is exposed to an allergen, even if they are indeed suffering some symptoms of anaphylactic shock.
But what are the other symptoms? The “lesser” symptoms? Let’s look at them.
Some of these symptoms are more obvious than others so I’m going to break it down as it applies to me.
The first time I realized I was allergic to apples, some 17 years ago, it was because the apple sauce I kept eating for lunch while pregnant with my eldest made my throat kind of itchy and feel like it was a touch swollen. Swallowing was slightly difficult but not anything significant. I can’t stress enough that this was extremely mild. I thought I just had a touch of a sore throat like I was getting a cold, only it only happened when I ate the applesauce and there were no other cold symptoms that ever showed up.
What I know now is that I built to that and hadn’t even recognized the earlier symptoms.
Here is what an allergic reaction, that doesn’t always involve my throat, looks like to me now that I know what to look for.
First, my stomach is upset. It feels overly full, like I just ate a huge feast, even though I only ate a normal amount, and I’m maybe a bit nauseous but always extremely gassy.
Then an hour or so later my chest starts to feel tight. It’s like I have bronchitis (the best comparison I have because I’ve had it so many times) only I’m not coughing. All in all, it feels like my lungs are being seized and it’s hard and even painful to breathe.
Somewhere in this comes the ominous feeling of doom. Something isn’t right. In fact, something is very very wrong. If I’m paying attention to it and recognize the symptoms, then I pin it down to something being very wrong in and with my body. Folks, this is because I’ve poisoned myself and am potentially dying. I should feel like something’s wrong. Don’t discredit this feeling. It’s almost like a panic attack without the racing heart. It’s just ominous.
Around that time, I sometimes, but not always, feel like I’m having a hot flash only it doesn’t go away like my hot flashes usually do.
Usually, if my throat is going to come into play, it’ll happen about 2 hours out. A mild reaction means it’s just sort of scratchy. Maybe a touch of difficulty swallowing, but not so bad that I can’t take a small handful of Benadryl. Of course, a serious reaction means that handful of Benedryl needs to instead be liquid and if you can’t even do that, you need to use the EpiPen.
Some would say that you should have used the Epi earlier in the process. Talk to your doctor about when it’s an Epi emergency versus when it’s just a Benedryl emergency. The next step is to get yourself to an ER for steroids and shit. Don’t do what I do (which is to take too much Benedryl and sleep off the maybe dying process). Seriously, don’t do what I do. One of these days I’m going to wake up dead. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, if you had to use your Epi it is 1000% time to go to the ER. Don’t drive, call 911.
Now another point to make.
I described this as a process that takes hours to fully develop. This is not even close to always the case. I described it this way to really fully make the point that just because your throat didn’t close up immediately, doesn’t mean you didn’t have a reaction and it doesn’t mean that it won’t.
I’ve heard plenty PLENTY of stories where someone was exposed to something they shouldn’t have been and it took all of 30 seconds for their throat to close and the only reason they survived is because there was someone right there with access to an EpiPen who knew how to administer it.
Anaphylactic can play out in hundreds of ways. It can take on any combination of symptoms and it can all happen really fast or it can take hours for a reaction to develop.
The first reaction can be so mild that you don’t even realize you had one at all, allowing you to repeatedly expose yourself to the allergen until it finally clicks what is happening. Each exposure getting a little worse than the previous one.
Somewhere over the last couple of years, I’ve developed an allergy to jarred red sauce for like pasta or pizza. I’ve been tested and I’m not allergic to any of the individual main ingredients (tomatoes, mushrooms, the herbs) so we’ve collectively (including the doctor) come to the conclusion that it’s the preservative. The solution for the past few months is that I’m only allowed to eat fresh, homemade, red sauce. Most pizza chains are ok. (Papa John’s is not.) Pat has his grandmother’s recipe. I am fine.
However, two nights ago I may have had a mild reaction to Pat’s homemade sauce. I don’t honestly know because I happen to have a cold and honestly, early reactions already look like a cold so it’s stupidly hard to tell the difference. I just know that my chest gradually began to tighten and my throat became compromised. But that happens anyway with a cold? I took a couple of Benedryl and went to bed. I still don’t know if I had a reaction or not.
So I guess the next time I expose myself to it, I need to make sure I’m otherwise healthy. Only then will I know for sure.
(Also, if I’m allergic to red sauce I’m going to straight-up riot.)
There is no one way to experience anaphylactic shock. It doesn’t look the same with every person and it doesn’t look the same with every allergen and it doesn’t look the same with every exposure to the same allergen. It’s progressive with time and exposure.
So learn the symptoms. Learn to listen to your body. And if someone says they are maybe having a reaction, don’t discredit them just because it doesn’t look like you see on TV.