Did eating too much chicken tikka give me a deadly allergy
23:50 GMT, 3 December 2012
Christine Caudwell had just polished off her favourite Indian takeaway when her hands began to itch like crazy.
‘I watched in horror as the itching spread and red welts spread from my hands and erupted all over my body,’ recalls Christine, 43, a nurse from Camblesforth, Yorkshire.
‘It felt like thousands of tiny insects were crawling under my skin. Within minutes I was as red as a lobster.’
'I kept having to go to hospital for steroids… Gradually it dawned on me it must be the curries that were triggering the reaction,' said Christine Caudwell
Christine, who lives with her partner Malcolm, an architect’s technician, was on her own and, in a state of panic, had to drive herself to the hospital where she works.
She was diagnosed with an allergic reaction and given intravenous steroids, which reduced the symptoms within an hour.
Christine had never had an allergic reaction before — not even hay fever — and went home hoping it was a one-off.
‘I thought it must have been a skin allergy to washing powder or something,’ she recalls.
In fact, although she didn’t yet realise it, she’d suddenly developed an allergy to spice — despite the fact she’d eaten the same dish, chicken tikka dopiaza, at least once a week for years without any ill-effects.
Over the next four months she had several more allergic reactions — sometimes as often as twice a week.
‘My GP prescribed antihistamines, which I took whenever my symptoms started, but they did nothing,’ she says.
‘I kept having to go to hospital for steroids — around 15 times in all.
‘Gradually though, it dawned on me it must be the curries that were triggering the reaction — and those containing paprika in particular.
'I started to avoid them and there was no denying that the reactions reduced.
‘I was gutted, though, because I’ve always loved curries and Mexican food with chillies, too, and didn’t want to face the fact that I might not be able to eat them any more.’
But even after giving up curries, Christine still wasn’t safe: as she was eating a bag of cheesy puffs one day, she began to feel the familiar itching.
She had no idea that it’s not just curries that contain spice, but also many processed products — cheese puffs contain paprika and turmeric.
Even after giving up curries, Christine still wasn't safe
‘This time, though, it was a lot more serious.
'I could feel my head swelling up — it felt like it was being inflated by someone with a bicycle pump.
'My throat was tightening and my breathing was becoming wheezy.
‘I realised it was an anaphylactic reaction. I knew I should have called 999 but I thought it would be quicker to drive myself into work and go to minor injuries.
'I drove through every red light to get there quickly.’
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Christine still craves her favourite curries but knows nothing is worth putting her life in danger
‘We believe it is connected to the modern Western lifestyle — but we still don’t know what exactly is causing it.’
One theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, says our increasing preoccupation with cleanliness means children are not being exposed to bacteria, and their immune systems do not develop properly, he adds.
‘The theory is there is a window in the development of an infant’s immune system when exposure to bacterial toxins can help protect them against allergies in later life.
‘It is likely that spice allergy is under-diagnosed, as not many people are aware spices can trigger allergic reactions, and it can be hard to pinpoint exactly which spice is triggering the response.
'There needs to be much greater awareness of it among the public and doctors and improved food labelling.’
A reaction to chilli is the most commonly reported spice allergy, says Zoe Smith, an allergy dietitian at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, London.
The problem is that spices can be difficult to avoid, she says, because only the top 14 allergens have to be included in warnings on packaging by EU law — the only spice included in this currently is mustard.
Christine must now stick to a restricted diet — mainly plain foods such as bread, salad, jacket potatoes and chips.
But, she says, it’s a nightmare trying to find out which spices are in manufactured or restaurant food, as many of the labels will just say ‘mixed spices’ without specifying which ones.
‘I’ve had a reaction from a packet of Gummy Bear sweets because of the curcumin, found in turmeric, that they contained — and from a shop-bought chicken salad sandwich which had mayonnaise with mustard in it.
'Neither ingredient was mentioned on the label.
‘I was even shocked to find paprika is used to flavour some well-known brands of oven chips.
'There are also spices in sausages and pepper in ready-made cottage pies and even Easter eggs.
'It seems spices are being added to everything these days and they’re very hard to avoid.’
Christine still craves her favourite curries but knows nothing is worth putting her life in danger.
‘Although I’m dying for a taste of curry, I’m not prepared to risk it,’ she says.
Visit allergyuk.org or call 01322 619 898 for information.