Allergic to Running

People often say that if we listen closely to our bodies, they will tell us exactly what we need, and more importantly, what we don’t need. On Monday February 10th, my body decided to turn against me while I was out on a run and I suffered an anaphylaxis allergic reaction. It was the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to me and as I was waiting for the ambulance to arrive to pick me up, I didn’t know if I would make it.

It was around 9:00pm on Monday when I met my friend Mark for an evening run. Our plan was to do a 5K progression run from 7 minutes/km up to 6 minutes/km. We took off down the Danforth and I was feeling good. My legs felt strong, my energy was high, and we were chatting comfortably, talking about how we were really excited for the spring race season to begin. About 15 minutes into the run my eyes started to feel funny. They were burning as if I had rubbed them after cutting hot peppers. I thought back to what I had ate that night and realized I hadn’t cut anything hot. I tried to ignore this feeling in my eyes and kept on running.

Jenna Allergic Reaction 2

In the hospital

5 minutes later I knew everything was not going to be ok. I slowed down, told Mark that I was going to have a panic attack, and held onto his arm as we walked to a nearby bar to get a glass of water. My upper lip was starting to swell and when we got to the bar I bolted to the washroom and was horrified by what I saw in the mirror. My face was swollen to three times it’s size, I almost couldn’t see my eyes, and my legs and feet were incredibly itchy. I went outside and told Mark that I had no idea what was happening to me and that maybe we should call an ambulance. I believe there was someone above looking out for me that night because a very kind man sitting at the bar got on his phone right away and called 911.

The hives were spreading fast, up my body to my arms and hands. My wrists were so swollen that I couldn’t move them and my legs were on fire. I just held onto Mark and prayed that the ambulance would get there soon. Luckily the Toronto East General Hospital was just around the corner and the ambulance arrived in less than 3 minutes. The paramedics took me into the ambulance, asked me what was going on and gave me a shot of epinephrine. At this point I was shaking uncontrollably and having a panic attack on top of my allergic reaction. The paramedics were incredible – they kept me calm and helped me control my breathing because I was worried that my throat was going to start to swell. My mouth was parched which made it tough to swallow, but I wasn’t allowed to have any water.

Once we got to the Emergency Room, they took me in right away and hooked me up to some drugs. Mark stayed with me until my boyfriend and my parents arrived and tried to make me laugh by telling me that I looked like Shrek. Thanks Mark. We were in the hospital until 3am that night because I had to be under observation for 4 hours in case the reaction returned. We were home by 4am and I slept until 10am the next morning. My eyes were puffy and my joints were swollen for two days after that, but by Thursday I was looking and feeling normal again.

One day after the reaction.

One day after the reaction.

I still have no idea what happened to me. The Dr. said it could have been a result of exercising in the extreme cold, but I have been running outside all winter for two years and this has never happened before.Β  Another theory is that it could have been a reaction to the fish I had for dinner prior to running. I was a vegetarian for 3 years and just started adding fish back into my diet. I have eaten shrimp, salmon, arctic char and calamari over the past few months without any negative reaction. There is something called exercise induced anaphylaxis occurs during physical activity that takes place after an allergen is consumed. So it may be that I am allergic to fish, but that the allergy only comes out during exercise.

My allergy tests are scheduled for March 19th so I hope to have some answers then. Until that time, I have been instructed by my doctor to stay away from running and focus on lower intensity, lower impact activities like yoga. It’s been 2 weeks since this incident and staying away from running has been tough, but I know it is what’s best for me right now. I have sold my race entry to Around the Bay and it looks like I might have to postpone my first marathon until the fall, or later. I’m upset about what happened, but mostly grateful for Mark, the kind man in the bar who called the ambulance, and my boyfriend and family for taking such good care of me. I am grateful that I am able to write this blog post and grateful that I can still do fun things like yoga and light strength training. My running friends have been fantastic too, always there to offer encouragement and support when I need it.

For the next few weeks I am going to try to keep things fun and exciting through yoga and strength training and will post some of the challenges and workouts that I am doing. If anyone has had a similar experience to this, please let me know. And if anyone has some suggestions for how not to go crazy on a break from running, I’d appreciate those too πŸ™‚

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5 thoughts on “Allergic to Running

  1. Jenna, So weird that I came across this post tonight. An almost identical thing happened me in February 2013. I had an anaphylaxis attack and had to go to the ER. I was not exercising at the time–had just awoken and eaten breakfast–when it came on, triggered most likely by nuts, a food I’ve always eaten in vast quantities and that no one in my family is allergic to. After epinephrine, Benedryl and a few hours observation I was released, and on a prescription of Prednisone for a couple weeks. I felt better but the same thing happened a few weeks later after the Prednisone Rx ran out–full on anaphylaxis and trip to the ER.

    Like you, I was training for my first marathon when all this went down. The allergy went away within a couple months. My allergy testing revealed no allergies whatsoever.

    Fast forward to Feb 2014: Soon after I ramped up my triathlon training (I decided to try my first 1/2 Ironman this past year), the same thing happened–my body rebelled! No anaphylaxis or freak food allergy this time, but panic attacks! I am not prone to panic attacks but they started coming in fast and furious!

    I am convinced there’s a connection between training hard and our bodies acting out against the stress. I’m a bit concerned as I go into my off-season and plan ahead for this coming year’s training–I am hoping to avoid what happened in Feb ’13 and ’14.

    Congrats on your recent HM PR! Have you been allergy free for the past year?

    • Hi Yuki,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. Sounds like we did have a similar experience. Since February 2014, I have not had another anaphylaxis allergic reaction. I did go for allergy tests after my attack and they determined that I was very allergic to wheat and I have cut this out of my diet. I knew before this attack that my body did react poorly to wheat products, so I probably should have cut it out earlier. I also ate fish and dairy on the night of my attack, but the results to those two allergens were negative. I eat dairy now, but I do not eat fish – I am too scared to.

      I have to say that a lot of what was going on with me was related to stress. I was under A LOT of stress at the time of my attack and I have to believe that that played a large role into what happened. I have since switched jobs, am much calmer, and feel a lot better. I used to get severe panic attacks while exercising to the point that I would have to stop. Last year I got a panic attack after every single workout I did. Again, this was 100% related to stress.

      I agree with you that there is a connection between training hard and our bodies reacting out against the stress. If you have too much stress in other areas of your life, our bodies rebel when we train hard. They just can’t handle life stress + workout stress. We should only be having to deal with workout stress. As my Coach tells me, your body doesn’t know where the stress you’re feeling is coming from, it just knows that it feels stress. So too much = not good.

      If you’d like to keep in touch, feel free to email me at jenna.pettinato[at]gmail.com Take care and best of luck in your Ironman training!

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