A Cup of Coffee – Allergy or Sensitivity?

Welcome back! Last week, we talked about what we can say when someone we know and care about has been told they are terminally ill. If you missed this blog and would like to catch up, click HERE.

If you are like most, you consider a stuffy nose or scratchy throat around springtime to be your “spring allergies”, as did I until recently. I would soon find out that an allergy is not the same thing as sensitivity, and exactly what the difference is.

That word doesn’t mean what you think it means

I think we use the term “I’m allergic” so much, that we take the seriousness out of it. When someone says, “My daughter is allergic to peanuts”, we may think of that as a sore throat, stomach upset, or maybe even hives. We might even assume the child just doesn’t like peanuts, right? “I’m allergic”. Sure you are Linda.

What we don’t necessarily think about is something called anaphylaxis.

My personal experience

I was recently given a medication that my body was not happy about. It started out with the experience of hives, but in my case, took actual days to reach the point of anaphylaxis, so it never occurred to me that my life was in danger. I went to urgent care, not the ER.

Thankfully the RN who checked me in realized this wasn’t a good day for me, and I was taken straight back, where the doctor took one look inside my throat and ran to get a liquid steroid. She left the door to my room open, and I heard the RN say, “should I start an IV?” to which she answered, “There’s no time”.

I had to drink the steroid straight down, along with an antihistamine cocktail, while she observed me for an hour to make sure it worked. Because I had been so itchy, I had been taking large doses of Benedryl for the days leading up to my reaction. The doctor thought this must have prolonged my response time to the allergy.

I was clueless

It wasn’t until she explained what had happened that I realized how serious this was, and it was this day that I learned the difference between “sensitivity” and “allergy”.

The child in the classroom

I said all of that to say this: When a student in your child’s classroom has an allergy to peanuts, it’s a very, very serious, life-threatening situation. Just as you would do anything to keep your child alive, so would their parent(s). Complaining about restrictions isn’t helpful. Believe me, if the family could take away this horrible allergy, they would do so.

Anaphylaxis: it’s not just for peanuts anymore

Peanuts get a back rap, mostly because one can be allergic to anything, but there are some culprits that are more prone to allergic responses than others. Let’s take a look…

Shrimp, Lobster, and Crab, oh my!

According to WebMD, shellfish, such as shrimp, lobster, and crab are triggers for some people. Shellfish and fish allergies can be so serious that just the cooking vapors can sometimes trigger an allergic reaction. As a reaction gets worse, tissues swell, blocking airways, and people can have deadly heart and circulation problems.

One tiny seed

One tiny sesame seed can cause an anaphylactic reaction. Legumes such as lentils, peas, soybeans, and other beans can also cause reactions. They’re related to the peanut, which is actually a legume. Although not legumes, real nuts such as cashews and walnuts also tend to cause problems for some adults. 

Read Labels

Children are often allergic to wheat, milk, and eggs. Because they all can be hidden in other foods, read labels carefully. By law, the eight most common allergenic foods — milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, and wheat — and ingredients made from them such as lecithin (soy) and whey (milk) should be listed.

Those bees!

Venom from honeybees, yellow jackets, wasps, and hornets can cause anaphylaxis. If you have had a reaction to a sting or suspect an allergy, see an allergist about allergy shots, as they may help you. Avoid wearing perfume or cologne and bright colors. You don’t want to look or smell like a flower if you’re allergic to bees.

Da bugs…

Crawling, and biting insects like ants and ticks can cause severe allergic reactions. Fire ants can inject their venom over and over. Watch out for ant nests to avoid the painful bites of these bugs. Wearing closed-toed shoes, pants, and long sleeves outside may also help you avoid bug bites.


Penicillin and other antibiotics are common causes of drug-related anaphylaxis. Chemotherapy drugs, imaging dyes, and muscle relaxants used in anesthesia can also cause problems. Tell your doctor if you have had any reactions in the past to medications. As you age, a sensitivity can turn into a life-threatening allergy.


Latex-related anaphylaxis is rare. People who’ve had many surgeries and health care workers tend to be most at risk. Triggers can include gloves, IV tubes, syringes, and other items made with natural rubber latex. Even non-medical items like balloons, elastic, and condoms can cause reactions. Look for non-latex, synthetic choices. Additionally, some face paints contain latex, so if you have an allergy to latex, be sure and ask the painter for a list of ingredients before sitting down.

Over the counter

Even medications you can buy over the counter can trigger anaphylaxis in some people. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are some that may cause severe allergic reactions.


In rare cases, physical activity such as walking, dancing, or swimming can cause anaphylaxis. Sometimes it happens only with exercise along with eating certain foods or taking specific drugs. Exercising in hot, cold, or humid weather can increase anaphylaxis chances. An allergist can help identify the cause.

Anaphylaxis Warning Signs

Call 911 and get medical help right away at the first sign of anaphylaxis.

Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or tightness, trouble swallowing,
  • Trouble breathing,
  • Low blood pressure,
  • A change in consciousness,
  • Hives, swelling, a tingling feeling, itchiness, or a skin rash,
  • Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and
  • Tingling or itching in the back of the throat.

Epi Pens

Your doctor can prescribe an Epinephrine injector (Epi pen), which can prevent or reverse anaphylaxis symptoms. If you’ve been prescribed epinephrine injectors, carry two doses with you and know how to use them.

In case you fall unconscious, be sure you’ve trained friends and family in their use as well.

If you think you’re having an anaphylactic reaction, immediately inject epinephrine even if you are unsure that the symptoms are allergy related. Then call 911, even if you feel better.

Pre-existing conditions

The following health conditions can put you at a higher risk of anaphylaxis:

  • Asthma
  • A known food allergy
  • Previous allergic reactions to other things
  • Heart Disease
  • COPD

Keeping these conditions under control can lessen your chances of having severe allergic reactions. Talk with your doctor.

Medic alert bracelets and necklaces

The MedicAlert Foundation offers a 24-hour emergency response service and family notification. I.D. can come in the form of bracelets, dog tags, sports bands, watches, and more. This alert can give emergency responders the information they need to save your life.

Be Prepared

See an allergist for a diagnosis, emergency treatment plan, and information on avoiding triggers. Keep your epinephrine supply current and find out if any medications you take can interfere with it. Talk to your family, coworkers, and friends about warning signs and treatment. If the time comes, you’ll all be ready.

Food intolerances or allergies?

Harvard Medical School posted an article on the differences between Food intolerance and allergies. “Food intolerance refers mostly to the inability to process or digest certain foods. The most common food reaction appears to be lactose intolerance. As we get older, our ability to digest dairy decreases. That’s because, with age, our intestines make less of the enzyme (lactase) that processes lactose, a type of sugar present in milk and dairy products. As a result, we have more lactose sitting in the digestive tract, which can cause stomach bloating, inflammation, and diarrhea. Research has found that only about 35% of people worldwide can digest lactose beyond the age of about seven or eight.

Lactose intolerance is not a serious disease, but it can be quite uncomfortable. Avoiding dairy products is a surefire way to avoid symptoms; some, like milk, tend to produce more severe symptoms than others, like yogurt and cheese. Over-the-counter lactase enzyme supplements can also help.”

Food allergies

The article went on to say, “A more severe problem happens when someone develops a true allergic reaction, an overblown response by the body’s immune system against a seemingly harmless substance — in this case, a food. The classic example is the potentially life-threatening difficulty breathing and low blood pressure following exposure to peanuts or seafood. Food allergies can show up at any time in our lives, even during older adulthood.”

It could happen

It’s important to realize that a life-threatening allergy can develop at any time in our lives. What our body was sensitive to before, can turn into something much more dangerous. You can even skip the sensitivity stage and go from no problems to serious allergies as you age.

Last thoughts

If you take nothing else away from this blog today, please remember that for some, an allergy is truly an allergy, and if exposed to the allergen, they could die. Can I gently advise that you teach your children in a non-alarmist way that they should know the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction so that if they, or their friends, demonstrate signs of anaphylaxis, they know to seek out help immediately?

No different than showing them how to recognize someone who is choking, by teaching them this, the life you save might be theirs.

Knowledge is power and helping our children to understand situations is giving them control over what might harm them.


As always, this blog is not a replacement for sound medical advice. I am not a doctor. Please make an appointment to see your healthcare provider and put a good plan in place that works for you and the needs of your body.

That’s all I have for you this week, dear reader. I’ll see you back here next Wednesday to share another cup of coffee. Until then, be good to yourself and each other.

Mind, Body, Spirit…Osteopathic Doctors treat the whole person, not just the ailment. Is your PCP a DO? Would you like to learn more about Osteopathic Physicians? Click HERE!

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