If you’ve ever dined out or flown on a plane, you’ve probably heard a fellow patron or passenger tell their server they have a food allergy. Or maybe you have been that person.
Entrepreneur, author and TV personality Bethenny Frankel wants to raise awareness of what food allergies really look like. Far too often, she says, people conflate a food intolerance or sensitivity with a food allergy.
“Restaurants roll their eyes because so many people say they’re allergic, but they’re actually on a diet and don’t want to eat butter, so they say they’re allergic to butter,” Frankel says. “If you’re allergic, you could die.”
Surviving anaphylactic shock
Frankel, a former cast member of the Bravo TV series The Real Housewives of New York City, isn’t overstating the severity of food allergies. In fact, the mother of one recently went into anaphylactic shock after eating miso soup contaminated with fish. After being exposed, Frankel’s hands felt itchy and tight, and she had a tickle in her throat.
For Frankel, the rest is fuzzy.
Doctors told Frankel’s boyfriend that if she had arrived at the hospital five minutes later than she did, she may not have survived.
During the episode, her blood rushed from her head, causing her blood pressure to drop dangerously low—to 60 over 40 when she reached the hospital, signaling she was near death —and her vision to blur.
She remembers not being able to see an assisting medic’s face before going unconscious for 15 minutes. When she woke up, Frankel remembers contemplating if she was having a stroke and if her life was in danger. Doctors injected her with an EpiPen twice to stop the life-threatening allergic reaction.
Although Frankel has had a fish allergy her whole life, she’d never had such a severe reaction as an adult.
“It’s manifested itself in many ways,” she said, explaining that previous reactions have caused her eyes to swell and bruise, and her lips to enlarge to six times their normal size.
As a child, Frankel received a routine skin prick test that confirmed her fish allergy, which, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team, occurs in 1 percent of the population, and is more common among adults than children. It’s less common than a shellfish allergy, which occurs in an estimated 2.5 percent of adults and 0.5 percent of children.
Before this episode, Frankel never realized how serious food allergies could be, and in the past had downplayed her health condition to avoid making a scene. She usually didn’t carry an EpiPen, which the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends for people with food allergies.
Now, Frankel tries to always keep one in her purse and the immediate circle of people around her know how to use it in case she has another anaphylactic episode.
“It’s a different life now, and there’s a little bit of a fear,” she says, “and they say the more exposure to the allergy you have, the worse it is, so that makes it a little scarier.”
She stressed how important it is to understand the key difference between food allergies and food intolerance —and why others should get tested and be prepared if they suspect or know they have a food allergy.
It’s like locking the door so you don’t get robbed,” Frankel says of carrying an EpiPen. “I wasn’t locking the door, and then all of a sudden, I got robbed in the worst possible way. So now I’m locking the door.”