Joanna Karpinski and Josh Widzer share married life together and a common problem—severe food allergies. NIH MedlinePlus magazine’s Naomi Miller caught up with them recently to learn more about how they cope.
What foods are you allergic to?
Joanna: Tree nuts, peanuts, and cinnamon.
Josh: I am allergic to milk and all dairy products. This includes cream, cheese, butter, and milk.
When did you start having problems with food allergies?
Joanna: My severe nut allergies developed when I was about 3 years old. The less severe peanut and cinnamon allergies began in my mid-20s.
Josh: I was too young to remember, but my Mom says that she fed me macaroni and cheese when I was around two years old. I immediately started swelling up and turning blue.
How did you find out what the allergies were? Did you work with an allergist?
Joanna: We learned about my nut allergy the hard way: I had an anaphylactic reaction to a pecan treat when I was three. After that, my mother took me to an allergist, who used scratch tests to diagnose my other food allergies. As an adult, we used an elimination diet to diagnose my peanut and cinnamon allergies.
Josh: After the emergency room visit, we went to an allergist who diagnosed the milk allergy.
What are your symptoms? What do you do when you feel them coming on?
Joanna: If I eat a tree nut, within about three minutes I’ll develop anaphylaxis: my throat swells, it gets hard to breathe. I break out in a rash on my chest and hands, and can get itchy all over. I immediately use an EpiPen (one type of epinephrine injector) and go to the ER. With cinnamon and peanuts, I get a bad rash on my hands and face within a day and have to take antihistamines.
Josh: If I just touch milk products, I itch and swell very badly. Benadryl usually clears up the skin reactions. I have a full anaphylactic reaction when I eat milk products, in which case an EpiPen and emergency room visit are required.
How has having food allergies changed your lives?
Joanna: It’s difficult to eat out because I can’t trust food that I haven’t seen prepared. Grocery shopping requires a bit more time because I have to read all of the labels thoroughly. Since Josh and I both have different allergies, it can be a challenge to make food we can both eat. But it has encouraged me to be very creative! I now have a hobby baking fancy cakes because no bakery could promise us an allergy-free wedding cake when we got married. So I learned to make my own wedding cake.
Josh: My allergies limit my choices of protein, so my meals contain more meat than average. Because most desserts contain milk products, I almost never eat them. Finding a cookie or cake I can eat is a special treat. Eating out also comes with some risk.
What kinds of treatments and prevention have been helpful?
Joanna: There is no cure for adults with food allergies. Medications like epinephrine injections and antihistamines can treat symptoms, but avoiding the trigger foods and carrying my EpiPen at all times is how I stay safe and healthy.