When food allergies become life-threatening

by Donna Chisholm / 15 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Food allergies

Martin Dickson. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Food allergies can cause more than hives or an upset stomach. For Martin Dickson, a shellfish allergy has been life-changing – and life-threatening.

Martin Dickson knew his shellfish allergy was serious when, in his late forties, a couple of spoonfuls of contaminated chicken salad sent him into anaphylactic shock.

He’d had his first adverse reaction at age 18 to a Cobb & Co prawn cocktail. “I came out in red lumps all over my body for four days, and after that, whenever I ate prawns, I got an itchy or swollen throat.”

For more than 25 years, Dickson avoided prawns, but about two years ago, three accidental exposures to minuscule amounts of the seafood within four months caused his condition to worsen significantly.

“It went from feeling itchy and yucky in the throat to anaphylaxis.”

On one occasion, he had to have adrenaline shots at a doctor’s surgery after eating three chips on a dish of calamari in a restaurant. When he returned to the eatery later to ask about its cooking methods, he was told the chip oil had been used to cook prawns.

After eating the chicken salad, which turned out to contain traces of seafood, he had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. And the third time, he became ill and dizzy after licking a finger he’d dipped into contaminated sea salt.

“It’s an absolute pain,” says 50-year-old Dickson, an Auckland health promoter. “Being with people, eating with them, sharing homes with people, is really important and a big part of my life. To avoid prawns is one thing, but once it gets to a trace and you could be dead in 15 minutes, it’s a completely different game. And that’s what I’ve had to adjust to.”

He now has to examine not only the main ingredients but everything that goes into sauces, stocks and dressings. “I used to get a hot rotisserie chicken from the supermarket, but even the hot chicken says it may have crustacea in it, because of the stock used.”

Dickson eats out only in vegetarian restaurants or in the one restaurant at which he’s a regular and knows the kitchen staff.

“You just seem like you’re being so dramatic if the message every time you walk into a cafe is ‘I could die if you get this wrong’.”

Dickson’s partner is a chef, and when the pair travel, they eat kosher meals on flights. Dickson also wears gloves on planes in case he touches a contaminated surface and then rubs his eyes, mouth or nose.

He always carries an EpiPen, so he can self-administer adrenaline, but says a severe anaphylaxis can require as many as six shots.

Dickson says he knows friends, acquaintances and colleagues of people with severe allergies find it difficult to deal with. “You might find it a pain, but we really find it a pain.

“It’s about trying to find sensible accommodations that work, so don’t be offended if we ask what’s in the food.”

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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