I don’t really remember much from the time before I was first diagnosed with a food allergy at age 4.

Honestly, it’s probably better that I don’t. It’s easier to pay attention to everything that you’re about to eat, without resenting it (much), if that’s all you’ve ever known.

My Food Allergies: Diagnosed Early and Often

Since the age of 4, I’ve been diagnosed with a plethora of potentially life-threatening food allergies: tree nuts to peanuts and all the nuts in between; shellfish; sesame seeds and poppy seeds; and more. On the positive side, I’ve also grown out of some allergies I was diagnosed with as a child, including food coloring, carrots and oranges.

It can be hard for people without serious food allergies to imagine what it’s like to need to constantly monitor something as basic as eating — with grave consequences for even the smallest oversight or mistake.

Ariel Raj as a young child

I was diagnosed with food allergies at a young age — about the time I looked like this.

I can remember my kindergarten teacher painstakingly reading every single ingredient aloud for each box of food I ate, just so I could know if I was able to eat it. Yet, despite being careful, there were many times in elementary school when I ate the wrong thing. At the first sign of an allergic response, I would take Benadryl®, which helps with minor allergic reactions like an itchy mouth. Then, I would wait and hope that the allergic response would not become more severe or progress to anaphylaxis, a reaction that can close up the throat, prohibit breathing, cause dangerous drops in blood pressure, and ultimately even be fatal.

I can remember all the times that the Benadryl worked — and all the times that it didn’t and I had to seek emergency medical aid.

The Cross-Contamination Problem

As anyone with dietary restrictions can tell you, eating involves an ever-present battle. With every bite of food, there’s that voice in the back of your mind asking, “Are you sure this is OK to eat?”

When you have a food allergy (as opposed to an intolerance), that voice gets louder and more urgent because “not OK” may mean you’ll end up in the emergency room — or even worse. I heard that voice every time someone brought treats into class, for example, knowing that even if a treat was homemade and didn’t seem to have any ingredients on my list of allergens, it would be safer not to eat it.

Ariel as an adult as a restaurant

Happy to be out for food — but I always have to be careful.

Whether it’s a homemade treat, or a restaurant meal, or even trying a new ice cream or milkshake, one especially difficult challenge with food allergies is the risk of cross-contamination (or “cross-contact”). For example, even if a food doesn’t have nuts in it, if it was prepared on a surface that nuts had touched, there is a chance that it would be cross-contaminated with enough of that allergen that it would trigger an allergic or anaphylactic reaction for me.

Knowing about potential cross-contamination is critical for someone with food allergies — but sometimes no one involved in preparing a food understands or communicates that this risk was present. That exact situation happened on my 19th birthday, when friends specifically checked if a cake bought for me had any nuts or was prepared in an environment where cross-contamination could occur. Although the restaurant assured them that it was nut-free, within minutes of my first bite, my tongue began to swell up. Benadryl did nothing, so I had to use an EpiPen® to inject myself with epinephrine — the most effective initial treatment for a severe food allergy reaction — and then immediately go to the emergency room.

Vigilance, Planning and Support

Because there’s so much risk of cross-contamination when eating out, my mom and I developed a system. I take a small bite of any new food, and then wait five minutes. Usually, within the first five minutes after eating a food, my body will react if there is a food allergen — and there is a chance that the reaction will be less severe if I’ve only had a very small amount of food. If I were to dive into every food I ate without waiting, I would have a higher chance of exposing myself to more of an allergen and going into anaphylaxis.

This isn’t foolproof, as even a small bite could send me into anaphylactic shock, but it has helped give my mom and me some peace of mind when I eat out.

My friends have caught on to this plan pretty quickly; often, if I forget to wait five minutes before taking a second bite, one of my friends will remind me. Friends also know which cuisines to stay clear of when we’re out together. They don’t insist that we go out for Chinese food, for example, because they know I’ve found that to be a high risk for cross-contamination; likewise, we generally avoid seafood, because of the risk of shellfish being prepared in the same kitchen.

Most of the people closest to me also know what needs to be done if I’m having a severe allergic reaction. It can be easy to forget the crucial details when you’re in the midst of having an allergic reaction, so it’s important to remember that if there is even an inkling of suspicion that it’s a severe or anaphylactic reaction, it’s best to use the EpiPen right away so as to avoid dire consequences later.

For myself — and anyone around me — understanding the symptoms of an allergic or anaphylactic reaction, and knowing what needs to be done, truly helps ease anxiety and ensure clear-headed decisions. With an anaphylactic reaction, a trip to the emergency room is usually inevitable — it’s always better to be safe. But identifying the problem quickly and using the EpiPen can help prevent a more panicked, out-of-control situation.

Having lived most of my first 20 years of life with food allergies, that’s the message I’d emphasize to anyone who is newly diagnosed with a food allergy: personal preparation, and the awareness and constant support of my loved ones has made living with my allergies easier, and has helped me get through the times when something went wrong.