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10 Things to Know If You, Like Me, Have a Shellfish Allergy

This month I had two cross-contamination reactions to shellfish. They really scared me. They really opened my eyes.

I had a minor reaction to shellfish when I was 28 after dining on shrimp scampi in Santa Barbara. While walking back to my hotel room, I felt tingly and itchy all over. I felt strange and dizzy and panicky. Something was not right. A coworker told me it might be a food allergy reaction and gave me some over-the-counter allergy medication. I never took that first reaction seriously, and I never followed up with a doctor. I just went on with my life.

That was a horrible mistake, one that almost cost me my life. That is a mistake too many people are making. Too many people don’t take food allergy reactions earnestly, or they think they will never happen again.

Later that year, while eating shrimp scampi once again, I went into anaphylactic shock and almost died. It happened quickly, and thankfully a hospital was nearby. The staff there saved my life. I was so surprised by what happened because I had eaten shellfish my whole life, and I didn’t take into consideration my first minor reaction.

Since then I have carried my EpiPens, but didn’t do more until my young son was diagnosed with food allergies. I realized I had not been proactive enough in regard to my own food allergies, so I was more careful for awhile. But then I wasn’t. Life, illness and constantly worrying about my son affected this.

I put all my time and energy into keeping my son safe, but I was not putting any energy into keeping myself safe. I had not done any new research, and I often forgot to tell food establishments about my allergy.

I thought just avoiding seafood restaurants was enough.

I was wrong.

One of my cross-contamination reactions happened while eating food from a local supermarket in Virginia. The other happened while eating a Subway sandwich at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. My whole mouth tingled and burned, and the roof of my mouth swelled up. I felt weird and lethargic. I hadn’t had that feeling in over 20 years. The feeling of fear/panic/dread that I may be going into anaphylactic shock.

The feeling I will never forget.

The feeling I never want to have again.

I clutched my EpiPens both times and had my family with me. My husband watched me closely and was ready to call 911 if necessary. I was OK, but I learned some valuable lessons/tips I want to share.

1. Learn what foods are considered shellfish. I was completely shocked recently to learn that calamari (which is often fried in the same oil as french fries, mozzarella sticks, etc.) is included in the shellfish category. Some other kinds of shellfish are prawns, crayfish (crawfish,) crabs, lobster, shrimp, oysters, scallops, clams, mussels, octopus, sea urchin, escargot (snails), cockles, abalone, conch, periwinkles and whelk.

2. According to FARE, “Approximately 60 percent of people with shellfish allergy experienced their first allergic reaction as adults.” This happened to me after eating shellfish for over 20 years. Please be careful because it can happen to you too.

3. Always tell your servers you have a shellfish allergy whether you are at a restaurant or sandwich shop. Make sure they let the chef know and that they can safely accommodate you. Ask them if their establishments share fryers/grills with seafood.

4. I also tell anyone who comes into contact with me that I have a shellfish allergy, such as dentists, doctors, hairdressers, x-ray technicians, etc. You never know what ingredients are in products used to treat you.

5. Avoid seafood restaurants and maybe even most Asian or Thai restaurants. Their menus are or can often be full of shellfish or shellfish ingredients/spices/extracts/broths. I had a scare last year when I was given shrimp spring rolls instead of vegetarian ones. I was OK, but I have not eaten at an Asian restaurant since. Call or visit all restaurants to determine if they are food-allergy-friendly before dining at one.

6. Avoid clambakes, oyster festivals or any celebrations with seafood everywhere if you can. Just being around these events can produce reactions. Don’t handle/touch any shellfish.

7. Avoid cooking areas where seafood is being prepared. According to FARE, the proteins in the shellfish can become airborne. That is why it is best to avoid these areas since these proteins can produce a reaction in some.

8. Read the whole menu at places, and be aware of any additions, such as the new Seafood Sensation sandwich at Subway. I had no idea there was shellfish at Subway, and it was the source of one of the cross-contamination reactions I mentioned earlier.

9. Read the labels/ingredients to anything you will consume every single time. Things/recipes/factories often change. While I was at my doctor’s office, she offered me a vitamin supplement that had a shellfish warning on the bottom, as do many vitamins/supplements. I also avoid anything with omega-3 fatty acids such as prenatal pills with them. They made my heart skip beats and made me feel bad, so I switched to a different kind. This is my own personal experience, though, so check with your doctor. My local grocery store chain has a shellfish warning on their fried chicken, and I had a reaction to some cut vegetables. I no longer buy anything they repackage/prepare in their store. There is too much risk for cross-contamination as they share equipment.

10. Bring your Epi-Pens/Auto-Injectors wherever you go! Whether you are on land, sea or in the air, bring them! Keep Epi-Pens at room temperature, and protect them in cases/insulated bags/waterproof pouches. You never know when you may need them, and they may just save your life some day.

Please check with your doctor or allergist for any medical advice. Get tested, do research and be prepared. There are more things containing shellfish or cross-contaminated with shellfish than you may realize. It is for that reason I have also chosen to avoid all kinds of fish.

We are just like little fish swimming in a great big sea of food allergens.

Tread carefully, but don’t be afraid to live your life.

Follow this journey on Poetologie.

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Thinkstock image by Kora_ra