A Thought on Semantics — Allergy Attack vs. Allergic Reaction

It occurred to me in one of my anaphylaxis-fueled dreams on Wednesday that no one calls what happens when an allergen collides with your body an “allergy attack” anymore. It’s an “allergic reaction.” And yet, I remember it being an “attack” throughout most of my childhood.

And then I started thinking that I now say I have “life-threatening allergies” instead of “potentially fatal allergies,” though I said the latter all the time as a kid (10 points for my vocabulary, huh? I thought I was so cool for having used the word fatal before Sega Genesis’ Mortal Kombat’s “fatalities” were a thing. At least they were a thing in my own head. But I digress).

I sort of feel like people took my allergies way more seriously when I was a kid, and I don’t know if that’s because dying children are scary or if it’s because the words were scarier. From reading a bunch of mom blogs, I get the sense that there are a lot of people out there who don’t really respect kid’s allergies so much. And maybe my parents sheltered me from that negativity, or the internet didn’t really give room for so much bullying or so many opinions — but this isn’t an academic thesis so I’m going to hypothesize that the way we talk about allergies influences the way we respond to them.

Think about it: an allergy attack sounds scary. It sounds like war. Like some outside influence is attacking your body and trying to kill you. That’s pretty damn accurate. An attack sounds painful, taxing, and long-lasting. Because there’s rebuilding that needs to happen after an attack. You don’t just get hit by some bullets and walk away unscathed. You need a few days to wrap your head around what happened and get your strength back and all that. That’s what happens with anaphylaxis. Or any severe allergic episode (shoutout the blog, how clever, right?) for that matter. For instance, while I was better this time after the epi and all that, I still slept more than normal, still had trouble walking distances I would have normally been totally cool with, and found myself completely and utterly exhausted from lifting four 35lb sandbags and other production equipment that’s usually no problem at all. I would say I’m 80% back to full Cindy strength. I look okay, I sound okay, but I need to sit down more than I normally would. I need to take breaks when talking. I was attacked. I’m recovering.

Meanwhile, an allergic reaction sounds like a pansy thing. A reaction is a totally blase occurrence  Like, “When you found out you were nominated for an Oscar, how did you react?” You were happy. And you moved on with your day. “When you saw that YouTube video, how did you react?” You laughed and shared it. And you moved on with your day. A reaction is an immediate feeling that presents itself and then dissipates until the next influencer comes along provoking another reaction. An allergic reaction isn’t something to get worked up about. You ate cottonseed oil, you reacted by not breathing, then you breathed again, move on. I wish.

A reaction is simpler and less full-body than an attack. And I believe some allergic responses are reactions — like when I get hives from touching my laptop that someone borrowed while eating a sandwich and nothing else happen. But some — and I’d argue most if not all severe ones — are attacks. They are full-body hostile takeovers. And maybe if we said so, the idea of little kids not eating peanut butter cupcakes in schools would be easier to stomach. The idea that “if my child gets near peanut butter, she’ll react” sounds like no big deal, and can be countered with “well, if my child doesn’t get her favorite cupcake for her birthday, she’ll react too!” But if you say “if my child gets near peanut butter, she will have an allergy attack,” that packs more of a punch.

Same with “fatal” and “life-threatening.” Life threatening sounds sort of positive. Bear with me here. It includes the word “life.” Life is generally a good thing. Life-threatening implies that you have your life and something may threaten it but it’s still predominant. “Potentially fatal” sounds like “Probably going to die.” In actuality, they mean the same thing. But one sounds scarier. Which means it’s more likely to be taken seriously. When I go to restaurants and say things like “I might die” or “I have potentially fatal food allergies”  the waiter takes me more seriously than if I say “I have severe life-threatening allergies.” It means the same thing, but it elicits different responses.

Just saying.

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3 responses

  1. Pingback: New York Times: Can a Radical New Treatment Save Children With Severe Food Allergies? | allergyepisodes

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