"You're allergic to everything!" This was a hyperbole I heard all-too-often from kids who didn't understand what it's like growing up with food allergies.

Before I was considered old enough to make responsible food choices, I wore one of those ugly engraved chain bracelets displaying all of my allergies: tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, sesame, wheat, soy, eggs, and dairy. Now, I know certain people struggled with far more allergies than I did (rice, apples, you name it) but when you're a 12-year-old who's never tasted ice cream, pizza, or real chocolate, and your forced candy of choice is Starburst, eight allergies feels extremely limiting.

My parents had no idea about my allergies until I underwent anaphylactic shock as a 2-year-old. My mom noticed that I was developing topical rashes whenever she would kiss me on the cheek, especially after eating dairy products. Following the suggestion of my doctor at the time, she fed me mozzarella cheese to "test it out and see what would happen." This experiment caused me to react aggressively, prompting anaphylactic shock, requiring my doctor to administer my EpiPen and call an ambulance. Several blood tests at the hospital marked the beginning of my experience growing up with food allergies.

Allergic reactions occur when one's immune system rejects the proteins of a food, creating increased levels of histamine. Histamine is a result of the formation of antibodies to fight off the allergen entering the immune system, provoking typical symptoms of an allergic reaction: swollen lips, itchy eyes and tongue, tightening throat, hives, etc. If a reaction is especially bad and affects the entire body, it is identified as anaphylaxis. This normally lasts for longer periods of time, sometimes for days, and is known as protracted anaphylaxis.

Luckily for me, I gradually outgrew the majority of my allergies. First was my peanut allergy in first grade: I blame this for my peanut butter addiction. When I passed the "Allergy Challenge" for cooked eggs and dairy, my first stop immediately following that was Dunkin' Donuts to finally try munchkins (I know, I know, Dunkin' Donuts of all places!). Once my body started to accept the proteins found in my past allergens, I was able to consume dairy and egg products more freely.

My first time eating pizza was a revelation. Up until then, my go-to order was pizza crust and tomato sauce, to which everyone would respond with "Don't worry, it's just as good as the real thing!" I knew they had been lying the whole time.  

My first Halloween of eating candy besides Starburst and Skittles was heaven; I probably ate enough Kit-Kats and Reese's to make up for all the years without it.  At the age of 13, I was experiencing flavors that I had never encountered before in my life. I finally felt like the normal kid that I had envied throughout my childhood who could eat ice cream and chocolate without any worries.

chocolate, cupcake, cake, frosting, girl
Jocelyn Hsu

Although I am fortunate enough to have outgrown the vast majority of my allergies, I still deal with a few (and have actually developed some new strange ones): tree nuts, sesame, pumpkin seeds, and pomegranate seeds. When I ingest something containing one of those allergens, my reaction typically occurs within a couple minutes, depending on my sensitivity. It begins with an itchy tongue and throat, then numbing and slightly swelling lips, a bad stomachache, and sometimes a tightening throat as well.

Even though I'm generally careful about ingredients in the food I eat, I've had my fair share of allergic reactions, most of which could have been prevented with more communication and awareness. Many times I have gone to restaurants asking about ingredients, only to meet with the response, "Why not just try it and see what happens?" 

Last winter, I was checking out a new gluten-free cafe claiming to be free of the eight most common allergens, including nuts.  I ordered a sandwich with mozzarella, tomato, and pesto (after double-checking for allergens just in case) and was very excited to give it a try. One bite in, I immediately felt my throat itching and the panic rising.  A mistake on my part, I was not carrying my EpiPen or Benadryl with me.  

I began to panic as it was snowing, in the teens outside, and I had no car. I ran out of the cafe crying, walking down the street in attempt to find a drug store to buy Benadryl. I had walked what felt like miles until I finally found a CVS. I stumbled in, my reaction having worsened as time passed. I felt itchy and hot everywhere; my throat and tongue were itching like crazy, my lips were blue, and my vision was blurry. I made a beeline to the first antihistamine medication I found, handing it to the first customers I saw to open it instead of my own shaky hands.  I took the medicine and waited (the usual routine). I thought to myself, "This is when I start to get better," trying to calm down.

Only, the reaction wasn't subsiding, and I began to panic even more. The only time I had used an EpiPen before was as a toddler. My dad arrived just in time, rushed me to the hospital, and I woke up hours later to find tubes stuck in my arm and hives all over my body.

The pesto had cashews in it. 

herb, vegetable, pesto, spinach, oil
Ellen Gibbs

Allergen awareness is especially important in today's food industry where cross-contamination is always a possibility. It is critical that food establishments make conscious efforts to display proper signage and ensure that all ingredients used are communicated to customers. Similarly, the customer should always comply with the request, "Please inform us if anyone in your party has a food allergy." Today's secretive, multi-faceted food industry makes it more difficult for people to control their allergies. But efforts on all parts make food establishments everywhere a safer place for those with food allergies.

In the meantime, here's a pesto recipe that does NOT require cashews.