A teenager who suffers from constantly changing allergies told yesterday how she dices with death every day — as any meal could kill her.
Nicole Gray, 19, has been rushed to hospital over 100 times in the past three years after suffering life-threatening anaphylactic reactions to common foods and products.
And because her allergies subside and new ones develop she never knows what is safe for her to eat or handle.
For months she was told to avoid all nuts after a severe reaction to hazelnuts – but then accidentally ate a meal containing peanuts and was completely unharmed.
She experienced similar reactions to shellfish and chocolate – a swelling of the throat and a severe rash – but can now eat both safely.
The list of foods and household items she is currently allergic to includes cheese, maple syrup, pears, ibuprofen, aspirin, face wipes and some soaps.
Nights out are also dangerous for Nicole because people often assume she is drunk if she collapses with an anaphylactic reaction.
She said: “If I don’t receive the correct treatment then it can kill within five minutes.
“It is not a game. It’s life or death, and it is really difficult to deal with.”
Experts at the Anaphylaxis Campaign, a charity which supports sufferers, said her unusual reactions may be caused by her having a variable allergy threshold.
Nicole, who lives with her mum Grace, 49, has no family history of severe allergies and enjoyed a normal childhood.
When she was 15, she was diagnosed with asthma, and at 16 had her first anaphylactic reaction after eating ice cream topped with hazelnuts.
Doctors diagnosed her with severe allergies – or anaphylaxis – and she has since had reactions to shellfish, chocolate, cheese, and various medications and cleansers.
She develops an itchy rash, swollen throat and breathing difficulties when she has a reaction and carries an ‘EpiPen’ which delivers a shot of adrenaline.
Nicole also has to ring 999 so doctors can administer adrenaline, anti-histamines and steroids and she is usually kept in hospital for between four hours and three days
She also needs to be monitored in case she suffers a biphasic reaction, where the allergy flares up again once the treatment has worn off.
But her condition is made harder to manage because her allergies vary and can “wear off” and be replaced by new ones.
She said: “When I had my first anaphylactic reaction I was told to avoid every nut.
“It was really, really hard, and food shopping would take an age. Even things like pure fruit juice could be off limits because it might have been packaged in a factory with nuts.
“My allergy was so severe that I could not risk anything at all.”
“My nut allergy has since gone away and I’ve gone through phases of being allergic to other things like shellfish and cocoa.
“Normally it starts with a really itchy, red, blotchy rash. I can get throat swelling, tongue swelling and my eyes can swell up. I have breathing difficulties a lot of the time and I often feel really dizzy.
“Depending on what it’s a reaction to, it varies how long it takes to come on. Food is really, really quick, but medication can take hours.
“I had a really bad reaction to Stilton, so they have said that at the moment I have to avoid all cheese. It sucks that I’ve got to avoid pizza.
“Face wipes also have something in them that I can’t use. When I’m out I carry hand gel, as I have had reactions to soap in the past.”
Over one 14-week period, Nicole was rushed to hospital at least once a week and missed so much school she had to stay on to take her final exams.
Nicole, of Musselburgh, East Lothian, added: “I have to make sure when I go to a bar or club I have to make sure that they know I suffer from allergies and asthma.
“The automatic assumption if they see a teenager ill or collapsed is that it’s drink related.
I always say to my friends to assume it’s the allergies and phone me an ambulance.”
Moira Austin of the Anaphylaxis Campaign, said: “Allergies to foods such as nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish, are less likely to be outgrown and are likely to be lifelong.
“Allergic individuals have a ‘threshold level’, the lowest amount of the food they’re allergic to that can trigger a reaction and below which the individual would not be expected to react.
“Threshold levels can differ between allergic individuals and in one individual from one day to the next depending on a number of factors that may include the person’s state of health, whether they have asthma and whether the asthma is well controlled.
“Factors such as exercise and stress may also alter an individual’s threshold level.”