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‘Going for a run could kill me, but only if I have a slice of pizza first’: KU student explains her bizarre food allergy

By Grace Mcgachy Feb 13, 2017
Grace (pictured) is allergic to the combination of certain foods and exercise. Photo Credit: Alice Wojcik

One of my most memorable reactions happened at a friend’s house. It was her birthday and we were going to eat pizza and camp out in her garden.

We ate our pizza and decided to have a go on the trampoline. It wasn’t long until I went and sat in the tent because my breathing became really raspy, and I was itching like crazy. I sat there trying to control it, willing for it to stop.

I didn’t want to ruin my friend’s birthday. My friends found me in the tent, took one look at my rash covered face, panicked and rang my mum who had to take me home.

I was so angry that my own body was trying to ruin my life.

I’m allergic to exercise as bizarre as that’s sounds. To put it more accurately I am allergic to the combination of certain foods and exercise.

Grace says she physically cannot say no to pizza or pasta. Photo Credit: Alice Wojcik
Grace says she physically cannot say no to pizza or pasta. Photo Credit: Alice Wojcik

Most of my reactions have occurred after I have eaten pizza and pasta (incidentally two of my favourite). The medical term for what I have is exercise induced food related anaphylaxis.

EIA is a rare disorder where anaphylaxis (the medical term for an allergic reaction) occurs after physical activity.

I have never been an overly active person. I’m no gym bunny and I’ve never been for a jog in my life but in my case simply walking is enough to trigger my allergies.

Luckily my condition does not prevent me from eating my favourite foods but I always have to be cautious about what I do after I eat.

My first memorable allergic reaction happened long before I’d ever heard of EIA. I was about 14 years old and I was out to lunch with my mum in Kingston, we had tapas.

On the way back to the car I developed all the symptoms: itching, wheezing, and hives. My mum took me home and all I could do was wait for the symptoms to stop. Not long after that the incident at my friend’s birthday occurred.

Then I was officially diagnosed by a doctor, but we still weren’t sure what I was allergic to.

Nevertheless I was prescribed an inhaler and two EpiPens (a portable injection that contains adrenaline that can reverse the side effects of allergic reactions), with the instructions to carry them with me at all times.

I kept on having reactions. They happened quite a lot and eventually I just sort of got used to them. It became part of my life.

Eventually I ended up in A&E because of my allergies. I was 16 years old, I’d been having allergic reactions for two years and we still didn’t know what had caused them.

I was walking to my work experience placement on a particularly humid day. Before I had left I had eaten a huge bowl of my favourite tomato and basil tortellini.

By the time I reached my destination I was having a full blown allergic reaction and it was probably the worst one I’d ever had.

That day was the first and only time that I’ve ever had an EpiPen used on me. I was in a cubicle at St Peter’s Hospital.

Grace exercising
To Grace, working out after eating a slice of pizza could actually be deadly. Photo Credit: Alice Wojcik

The doctor came in and asked me if I had an EpiPen, we told her yes and handed it over. She explained to me that she was going to use it on me. It was not a pleasant experience.

Eventually I saw a doctor and once I had told her about all my reactions, what I had eaten, and what I had done afterwards she explained to me about EIA.

She told me the foods most commonly implicated in EIA include wheat, shellfish and tomatoes. It all made sense. I’d eaten pasta and pizza my whole life and never had an allergic reaction.

It was the exercise that triggered it all along. I definitely used the diagnosis to my advantage by making my parents give me lifts everywhere and using it to get out of P.E at school.

Most people who’d been diagnosed with an allergy to tomatoes would probably try to avoid them. But I really don’t have that sort of self control.

I physically cannot say no to pizza or pasta and I’ll just deal with the consequences. I continued to have allergic reactions because I refused to give up the foods I love.

I genuinely just dealt with it because I love those foods so much. I picked food over my health. Priorities, right?

Maybe one day I’ll learn my lesson and cut down on my tomato consumption. Maybe I’ll never have another allergic reaction ever again.

All I do know is that I will continue to eat pizza until a doctor tells me it could kill me, and even then if you offered me a slice, I’d still probably say yes without a second thought.

Dr Adrian Morris, adult and children’s allergy consultant at the Surrey Allergy Clinic explains the medicine behind my weird allergy.

Exercise induced anaphylaxis is a type of allergy that only happens when food and exercise is combined. The exercise is really key – the food alone is not enough to cause a reaction, it has to be the combination,” he says.

“It’s not very common at all but it’s hard to estimate a number. We mostly see it in people that have recently started exercising or made a change to their diet or routine.

“So if a person who usually goes for a jog first thing in the morning switched to an afternoon jog they might find themselves having a reaction that they wouldn’t have had before.

“In a lot of cases, just a brisk walk after lunch is enough to trigger a reaction.”

So it is pretty similar to a regular allergic reaction. The person would start to itch, they might feel wheezy in their chest and develop a rash.

In extreme cases it can cause a rapid drop in blood pressure, making them feel weak or lose consciousness. We call this anaphylactic shock.

“My advice would be to try and get your exercise done in the morning before you eat,” Dr Morris says.

“If you go for a walk after a meal, pace yourself and just be aware of what you eat and where you have to go after.”

By Grace Mcgachy

Grace McGachy is a third year journalism student and deputy editor of The River and a news presenter for Radio Jackie.

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