Food Allergy Awareness Month: Claudine Sweeney's Story

With the month of May being Food Allergy Awareness Month, we wanted to share our CEO & Co-founder Claudine Sweeney’s story on developing an allergy as an adult. Struggling with ongoing allergies can be an uphill battle, especially when the source is unknown. Food allergies affect over 3 million Canadians and the number keeps climbing. We hope that Claudine’s story will resonate with anyone dealing with adult onset allergies, while inspiring you to be your own body’s advocate and "Food Detective". Here is her story!

 

Thought you could only get allergies when you were a kid?

 

 That’s what I always believed. Being active and healthy all my life, I never suffered from allergies as a kid. Suddenly, at the ripe old age of 43 while on a beautiful vacation in Italy, I had a reaction. I was doing what we had been doing all week - enjoying a delicious meal and fabulous wine - so I was a little freaked out when my eyes started to swell and my throat tightened up. The chef was running around the restaurant figuring I had had a reaction to his food and trying to direct us to the pharmacy for allergy meds.  By the next day I was cleared up, but I had to try to remember anything different in my routine that could have contributed to the reaction.  At the time, the only possible culprit was a new shampoo.  I figured, case closed!  I still had my doubts, so a few weeks later, I tried the shampoo again.  Eating all my regular foods that day and enjoying a glass of wine, it happened again!  This time, the ambulance was called.  My eyes were swollen shut and I felt like I had a balloon in my throat. I got jabbed, poked and hooked up to an IV at the hospital, where I looked like I went a few rounds in a boxing match.  I was prescribed an Epi-Pen and referred to an allergy specialist for testing.  

 

Considering this was the second episode with that “new” shampoo, I chucked it in the garbage, and set up an appointment with the doctor to double check things.  I have to say I was floored when the doctor said:  “Oh, it’s nothing to worry about, I’ve seen 3 cases like yours this week alone.  Take a Reactine once a day for the next 3 months and you should be good”.  That’s it?  No test, nothing?  He did give me a brochure for Idiopathic Angioedema  support, which was really just a website for people with unknown angioedema (swelling under the skin) funded by a pharmaceutical company.   

 

There I was, left with unanswered questions regarding my 2 episodes, but I figured I had self-diagnosed the culprit with the shampoo, so I dismissed the Reactine and went about my normal routine.  Our staff Christmas party was upon us, and we were looking forward to a great night with the team.  I was enjoying a glass of wine when my eye started to itch. I kept on looking in the mirror to check  if my eye was swollen, but figured it couldn’t be happening again?….but here we go again!!  I asked my husband Bruce, “Are my eyes swollen?”  He just said in a stern voice “Put on your jacket and get to the car!!”  My face was swelling up again, and this time I broke out in hives everywhere.  We were racing to the hospital, still in disbelief that this was happening once again. Considering I had tossed the culprit shampoo, I couldn’t make sense of it.  Here I was getting jabbed, poked and hooked up to IV for a second time.

 

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Now to this point I had discovered a common link at each of those reactions.  I had intentionally dismissed it, because it was something that I had consumed on a regular basis for years.  WINE.  I figured it can’t be, no, no, no, I've drank wine for a long time, we have a wine cellar for goodness sakes! This wasn’t good.  I went through an elimination process and stopped drinking red wine. I tested white wines, sparkling wine, tequila and other forms of alcohol and a common reaction would happen. I would take antihistamines to manage, but I had come to the realization that perhaps it was the wine/alcohol.  I completely eliminated it for a few months, then I got some confirmation and connected the dots. 

While on a family vacation in Quebec City, I brought along a bad cold and a supply of Buckley’s cough syrup.  We enjoyed the sights, went sliding, skiing and as my cold symptoms increased I increased my consumption of cold medicine and went to bed.  

Something was off.  I was having a bit of trouble swallowing, so I woke up my husband and told him something was wrong.  He sprung into action and immediately administered the Epi-pen. At this point, my hands and arms were covered with swollen hives and my face was morphing again.  It's 10pm and we’re not sure where the hospital is located.  Frantically trying to follow the GPS on the phone while trying to remain calm was a challenge.  We finally arrived at the hospital where again, I was jabbed, poked and hooked up to IV.  By this time I'm pissed and trying to figure out the trigger.  Knowing that alcoholic beverages had potentially contributed to all my last reactions, I realized the cough syrup did contain alcohol.  

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I still had not received any testing that would confirm this, only my documentation surrounding each episode.  I did eventually seek out an allergy skin test which concluded I had some sensitivities to birch trees, but nothing else showed up.  So where do I go from here?  No real answers, no real solution other than to completely eliminate and abstain from the perceived culprit - ALCOHOL.  We scoured the internet trying to find resources on allergies and alcohol.  We found that it is a rare allergy and difficult to determine via tests.  

Here I am, with an Adult-Onset allergy.

 It’s possible that I may have developed an allergy to a substance at some point during my life. What’s more intriguing is the number of people with adult-onset allergies is growing.

Experts in the field aren’t yet sure why allergies strike in adulthood. There seems to be a genetic component, though. If you have close family members with allergies, you’re more likely to develop allergies yourself, whether in childhood or adulthood. In my case, no one in my family suffers from any allergy.

In some cases, environmental triggers may alter the way the immune system responds to different substances. I’ve made some of my own assumptions about my allergy, mainly so I could accept my new routine of investigating everything I consume and surround myself with.  In my search, I've realized that alcohol and alcohol derivatives are in many, many products we consume. I had stock piled some liquid Benadryl only to find out that alcohol is its second ingredient!  Sitting right beside it on the shelves was the children’s liquid Benadryl with “alcohol free” on the bottle.  So it begs the question, why the hell is it in the adult formulation anyway?

Allergies develop when your immune system mistakenly identifies a substance or food as harmful. The allergen stimulates immune system cells to release certain chemicals, such as histamine, which then lead to allergy symptoms.  They can develop at any point in a person's life. Usually, allergies first appear early in life and become a lifelong issue. However, allergies can start unexpectedly as an adult, which is where I fall into.  

I’ve led myself to believe that maybe its hormones, maybe an emotional connection (my dad had passed away that same year, so perhaps the stress of his loss contributed) or my fear of flying…sounds odd, but I would always have wine before and during flights as a way to calm my anxiety about the flight.  I was grasping for an answer, an answer that would never come.

Having lived with this mysterious allergy for nearly 7 years, I've become a Food Detective for my own safety. Checking every ingredient, watching for symptoms, and trying not to let my guard down.  But it hasn’t always worked.  I’ve had a series of episodes over the years that I've managed with oral antihistamines and others where I’ve had to use the Epi-Pen.  Most remain a mystery to its origin and trigger.  

With the increase of food sensitivities, allergies and unknown medical conditions, we really need to each be our own food detectives, be curious and pay attention to how our bodies react to certain foods, weather it be bloat, stuffy nose, itchy skin, or a severe anaphylaxis, we are all susceptible to developing allergies throughout our lives. 

Thank you to Claudine Sweeney for sharing her allergy story on today's blog!

Did you know that SFL carries many food allergy-friendly products? Check out your local SFL to discover what's in stock!

 

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