This is What It Feels Like to Have an Anaphylactic Allergic Reaction

lifesaving allergy meds

This post is dedicated to the parents of kids with life threatening allergies. I've managed my fish and nut allergies pretty successfully all my life, and was raised to read labels and question ingredients. But accidents happen. In this post, I've laid out some strategies that have worked for me personally, and explanations about what it feels like with the hope that it provides a bit of clarity to parents whose allergic kids may not be able to fully communicate during an allergy attack.

When I created the LaLa Lunchbox app, I made it completely customizable so that people with allergies or eating preferences of any kind can be accommodated. Allergies are serious. We get that. We have also launched various dietary-specific food bundles inside of our app to provide more safe lunch inspiration for LaLa Lunchbox users. 

The nuances of allergies can be complicated to explain to outsiders. For example, the reaction my body has to a walnut is far more severe than the reaction to a Brazil nut and yet they both cause anaphylaxis. Same with various fish. Over the years, I've unfortunately had the opportunity to gather this detailed data and have listed my top tips below for eating out of my home. During holiday season, navigating the allergy waters can be particularly challenging. Sometimes, even after four decades, I make mistakes and eat something that causes a bad allergic reaction. I have to live with the burden of guilt and regret when this happens and at the same time, I'm incredibly grateful just to live. 


My strategies for eating out 
1. Avoid. There are many foods that I avoid completely and only eat if I've made myself because I've been burned in the past. This includes foods like pesto (walnuts), banana bread (walnuts), barbecue sauce (anchovy) and marshmallows (fish gelatin). If I'm at all doubtful that a food is safe, I don't eat it. There are plenty of other options in the world.
2. Clean Hands and Utensils for All. When I'm at the grocery store, the bakery or anywhere else that I may be purchasing food where there are known allergens and potential cross contamination, I ask whomever is helping me to put on a fresh pair of gloves. I request newly washed ice cream scoopers, newly washed tongs, you name it. These days, many people are accommodating to the request. If it's an issue, however, you should question whether you want to spend a penny at that establishment. At restaurants, I always let my waitperson know about my allergies with a no-nonsense, frank chat. This hasn't always been successful; unfortunately there are still people who just don't understand that "no nuts" means "not one teeny tiny bit of a nut anywhere."
3. Bring Extra Tissues. For holiday parties, restaurants, pot luck dinners and the like, I use a spare tissue to open doors and turn on faucets. I have gotten hives on occasion just by touching something that has been touched by someone who has eaten nuts or fish. Better safe than sorry, and tissues really take up no room. 
4. No Kisses. Hello and goodbye kisses are out of the question. For sensitive allergies like mine, it's just not worth risking the hives on my cheek from someone who has eaten something I'm allergic to. Folks who don't know me, likely won't be kissing me, and folks who do, understand that I'm not being cold, I'm being safe. 

Note: these are things that have worked for me, but always listen to the advice of your allergist. This is not clinical advice by any means. 

photo courtesy of WebMD

photo courtesy of WebMD

The fear of an anaphylactic reaction
The fear is one of the most difficult parts of an allergic reaction for me. Allergic reactions are painful, sure. But it's terrifying to feel something going wrong inside of your body and not be able to see any of it. 

The physical reaction
Beyond the panic, the first few moments of an allergic reaction make my mouth burn. My tongue feels prickly and I get hot throbbing hives on my lips and on my face. After about five minutes, I start to feel an ache in my esophagus as the hives move down my throat. I try not to panic, but it's hard not to. My legs feel weak and I want to cry. My hands start shaking. 

If I have accidentally swallowed something I'm allergic to, I get what feels like a golf ball stuck inside of my esophagus, my throat feels scratchy and it's painful to swallow. I worry about the hives. I worry about my blood pressure plummeting and going into shock. I try to contain the worry in my own head, but it's almost impossible. I'm afraid to alarm the people around me because I need them to stay calm on my behalf, just in case. My stomach aches with both a sharp and dull pain that makes me want to close my eyes and sleep so that it will stop aching. Benadryl is my first line of attack, followed immediately by two sprays of my ventolin inhaler and the epi pen. Once the Benadryl kicks in, everything seems to be moving in slow motion. After about ten minutes, the hives on my lip go down, my tongue doesn't feel as swollen, numb and prickly but my stomach still aches. I am overwhelmed with feelings of regret and guilt. I want to crawl out of my own skin from the knot in my stomach. I tell myself over and over that I can get through this and I'm grateful for supportive people around me. 

The safest plan if you have an anaphylactic reaction is always to go straight to the emergency room to be checked out by a doctor, even after you've administered the epi pen. 

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of

The After Effects 
The epi pen makes my body jittery and uncomfortable. After the Benadryl and the inhaler, I feel drugged and uncomfortable in my own skin. Within two minutes of getting the epi pen injection, I feel jittery and woozy all at once, but incredibly relieved that help is on the way. Everything feels like a monumental effort and yet I feel so speedy, like there's a highway full of race cars inside of me. 

It took me years to come to terms with the fact that I had to visit the ER with every anaphylactic reaction. The ER can be an overwhelming place, but it's part of the life-saving protocol for an allergic person. It goes without saying that if you ever have an anaphylactic reaction and do not have your epi pen, call 911 or go immediately to the ER. 

The day after
After an anaphylactic reaction, I feel bloated and out of it the next day. I need extra sleep. I try and put it behind me and thank my lucky stars that I got through it. I've never discussed the details about having a reaction with anyone so I don't know if this is standard. I haven't met many people of my generation who have allergies like this, and when I have in the past, we've mostly compared notes on what we're allergic to and what medications we rely on. Do you have life threatening allergies? Is this generally how you feel during an attack? 

For nut-allergic families, I've compiled a Guide to Safe, Nut-Free Lunches. If your family or a family that you know has a child with life threatening allergies and you think they may benefit from speaking to an adult who has been through it, please email me. I'm not a physician, but am always happy to provide emotional support. 


The Thankful Tree

I can't remember where I first came across the idea, but the Thankful Tree has been a huge hit with everyone around our Thanksgiving table for the last several years. It's the spirit of Thanksgiving in a beautiful centerpiece: each member of the Thanksgiving feast has to contribute at least one leaf with what he or she is thankful for and it becomes a bouquet of gratitude. 

The Thankful Tree is basically a hands-on family craft project that immediately becomes a conversation piece. For the wee ones, of course, parents can contribute. Two years ago, for example, my youngest said she was thankful for "yellow," and that's what we wrote on one of the leaves. On a more serious note, my family has had a couple of stressful years, with one member who had breast cancer and another who had open heart surgery, and the Thankful Tree has been a wonderful channel for us all to express our gratitude for their recovery, their medical care, and our family's ability to get through tough times together. This year we'll be adding some more color to our Thankful Tree with the new Gratitude Tree Notes from Lunchbox Love, a company whose lunchbox cards we love and use regularly. Thanksgiving is my most favorite holiday, and this is something I'm looking forward to immensely. See below for instructions on how you can create your own Thankful Tree. 

the Thankful Tree
Thankful Tree branches

Here's how to do it: 
1. Gather long thin branches.
2. Cut colored construction paper into leaf shapes and use a hole puncher to make a hole in each.
3. Have each person at your holiday gathering write at least one thing they are thankful for (make pens readily available).
4. Use kitchen twine or any other string to fasten the leaves onto the branches. 
5. Assemble in a vase and place at the center of your table. 

We talked about these all night long last year, and I'm looking forward to gathering branches soon. I can't wait to read the leaves this year!

Halloween Lunches

The stretch up to Halloween is always an exciting one. Lunch is my favorite place to insert some Halloween magic, so today I'm sharing some of our Halloween-themed lunches to show you how you can make it fun in the days leading up to the holiday without making it all about sugar and candy. All you need are some well placed props! Check it out, and be sure to follow us on Instagram where we're posting our lunches daily:


Mini quiche, clementine pumpkins, banana ghost and some mini apples.  

Mini quiche, clementine pumpkins, banana ghost and some mini apples.  

Egg monster, veggies, apples with spider, yogurt with blueberries.  

Egg monster, veggies, apples with spider, yogurt with blueberries.  

Eyeball yogurt parfait, banana ghost, clementine pumpkin and baby carrots.  

Eyeball yogurt parfait, banana ghost, clementine pumpkin and baby carrots.  

Raspberry eyeballs! Plus salad, cheese and crackers and carrots.  

Raspberry eyeballs! Plus salad, cheese and crackers and carrots.  

Apple monster with sunflower seed teeth and eyeballs affixed with sunflower seed butter.  

Apple monster with sunflower seed teeth and eyeballs affixed with sunflower seed butter.  

My personal fave: pear ghosts with berries, yogurt with a candy finger and dried apple, spider egg, banana ghost.  

My personal fave: pear ghosts with berries, yogurt with a candy finger and dried apple, spider egg, banana ghost.  

Bake It Happen: Baking for Breast Cancer Research

Bake It Happen

My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. I don't typically discuss personal family details on this blog, but I discovered a baking/fundraising for breast cancer research site called Bake it Happen (more on that below) and wanted to provide context for how and why I'm participating. As you can well imagine, the shock of a cancer diagnosis shook all of us at our core. Here's what I can tell you: 

  • Cancer is always awful, no matter how old the person is at the time of diagnosis, no matter the prognosis or the stage or the treatment. It has changed all of us. Permanently.
  • Chemo and radiation are terrible, but I wish that more was written about the journey that happens after treatment. My sister, her family and my family were in "go go go" mode during her treatment, and while that was helpful to get through it all, there is a storm of emotion that didn't begin to crop up until after all of the treatment had finished. Not to mention all of the post-treatment meds, the side effects, the check ups, the anxiety. 
  • People are wonderful. We are lucky; our family and friends came together to support my sister and her family last year in ways that I couldn't have predicted, and I am grateful in a way that I'm not yet able to fully articulate.

The good news is, my sister is now cancer free. 

Banana Chocolate Chip Loaf

During this journey, I discovered a site called Bake It Happen which helps raise awareness and money for breast cancer research. The program began out of a food blog called My Judy Foodie, named for a woman named Judy whose life was cut short from a long breast cancer struggle. I didn't know Judy, but I've read that she was a skilled cook and baker who spread her love through her meals. Her daughters, Shari and Stacy realized that they needed to spread the love of their mom's recipes in the name of cancer research. They hope to create a breast cancer baking fundraising movement to carry on their mom's culinary legacy and hope for a cure. For every person who bakes one of Judy's recipes and posts on social media, $5 will be donated to the Pink Pumpkin Patch Foundation for breast cancer research. The Pink Pumpkin Patch Foundation is a non-profit that raises money through proceeds from the sale of all natural pink pumpkins. The foundation works with participating pumpkin growers to promote and sell the pink skinned pumpkins, giving a percentage of their proceeds from each pumpkin sold to breast cancer research. Last year, efforts from the two organizations provided $20,000 for the cause. 

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

I'm committed to the cause and was happy to bake Judy's Banana Chocolate Chip Loaf and share my photos on social media (here, here and here). Want to sign up? Here's how. As an added incentive, your post (must be done by 10/31) enters you to win an iPad Mini and 100 Baked By Melissa Cupcakes. 

The Banana Chocolate Chip Loaf recipe made one loaf + 12 muffins! I was happy to bake these alongside my eldest child because it provided both the opportunity for us to talk about the importance of supporting worthy causes and a sweet and tasty way (literally) for us to reflect and find gratitude.  

Want to bake to support breast cancer research and get the recipes emailed to you? Right this way. 

6 Ingredient Carrot Squash Soup

I am struck by fall every year. 


Let's face it, the beauty of fall is complex and emotional, and perhaps that's part of it's allure. The whole notion of finding and appreciating such breathtaking beauty amid decay is complicated. The mood is such a departure from the carefree days of summer. 

farmers market squash

The food is also so different. Fall's harvest has such a different look and flavor profile from the bounty of produce that we pick in summer. Think of a delicate raspberry side by side with a hearty pumpkin. So when I stroll through the farmer's market and see long tables of squash and gourds, it officially hits me that summer is gone and it's time to usher in the new season. 

Nothing says fall like a thick soup made from root veggies, so that's exactly what I decided it was time to make recently. But I don't want fall soups that put me into a winter hibernation. We're not there yet. I don't want fall soups that are too heavy or creamy. They should provide comfort to take the slight edge off of the newly chilly air. They also need to be easy and fast, because let's face it: with back to school and curriculum night and new sports teams and the general chaos of a new school year, there just isn't time for anything complicated. Carrot squash soup to the rescue!

carrots for soup

This soup has just 6 ingredients, it can be prepped and served in under an hour and though I made the most recent batch with chicken stock, this recipe can be made completely vegetarian.

carrot squash soup

6 Ingredient Carrot Squash Soup

Here's what you'll need:  
2 pounds of carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
1 pound of butternut squash chunks (from one medium butternut squash, or from a package of already prepped chunks)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of olive oil
32 ounces of stock (chicken or vegetable) 
2 tablespoons of fresh sage, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional garnish: fresh sage and croutons

Here's what to do: 
In a soup pot on medium high heat, add the olive oil. After a few moments add the onions and reduce heat to medium. Stir until the onions are translucent, about 5-6 minutes. Add the carrots, squash and stock. Bring to a boil, stir, cover and simmer until the vegetables are soft (about 25 minutes). Add the sage. Using a stick blender, puree the soup right in the pot. If you don't have a stick blender, you can puree this soup using a traditional blender, working in batches. Add salt and pepper to taste if you'd like. 

Carrot Squash Soup