Bethenny Frankel shared scary news with fans on Monday night: She recently experienced a severe allergic reaction, which required her to be hospitalized.
"I have a rare fish allergy," she wrote on Twitter. Frankel, 48, says she had soup on Sunday, felt itchy, "and was unconscious for 15 minutes."
She was taken to the ER and eventually the intensive care unit with a blood pressure of 60/40. (A normal blood pressure is around 120/80, per the American Heart Association, so hers was dangerously low.)
Frankel says she "couldn’t talk [or] see, thought I had a stroke & dying." She also says she was told that if she got help five minutes later "I'd be dead," before noting that 911 and an EpiPen "saved me." She added, "I’ll never not carry an #epipen," before thanking the hospital where she was treated.
Frankel later tweeted at a fan that her fish allergy is "very unusual & confusing so I keep it to myself bc it is hard to describe."
Food allergy symptoms can vary depending on how severe your allergy is, how much of the allergen you're exposed to, and your body’s individual reaction.
It’s hard to say exactly how common they are, but they’re listed among some of the most common food allergies by the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) along with the proteins in cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, shellfish, and tree nuts.
If you're allergic to something and exposed to it, you might experience symptoms like itching, hives, swelling, diarrhea, and wheezing as your body reacts. In the most severe case, those symptoms might develop into anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction in which your airways swell and close. The only way to treat anaphylaxis is with an injection of epinephrine (which can be self-administered via an EpiPen or other auto-injector), followed by a trip to the ER.
Frankel’s stroke-like symptoms aren’t common with a food allergy, but they can happen.
As SELF explained previously, a stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency in which the brain is deprived of oxygen either because there's a clot blocking the blood from getting where it needs to go or because there's a leak thanks to a ruptured blood vessel. A stroke causes sudden weakness, numbness, loss of balance, and possibly loss of consciousness.
In addition to the more typical food allergy reactions (such as hives), someone with a severe food allergy might also experience a drop in blood pressure after they’re exposed to an allergen, Sandra Hong, M.D., an allergist-immunologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. This symptom becomes more likely if you're experiencing breathing issues related to anaphylaxis, the Mayo Clinic says.
"With the drop in blood pressure, people will feel dizzy or like they’re about to pass out," Dr. Hong says. If that drop is severe enough, they might actually pass out and become unconscious.
“If someone’s blood pressure gets very low, this means that the blood in our body which carries oxygen is not getting to where it needs to,” Olajumoke Fadugba, M.D., director of the Allergy and Immunotherapy Fellowship Training Program at Penn Medicine, tells SELF. “If severe enough, a person in this state may not have adequate oxygen supply to the brain or other parts of the body, and this can manifest as not being able to talk or see temporarily.” So Frankel’s symptoms were obviously on the severe end of an allergic reaction.
That’s where the EpiPen or other epinephrine auto-injector comes in. “The sooner you use them, the less severe your reaction will be,” Dr. Hong says. “People that wait and try to determine if they need an EpiPen or Benadryl are more likely to have more severe, life-threatening reactions.” That said, these things happen fast: An anaphylactic reaction often occurs within minutes of exposure to the allergen.
If you have a severe food allergy, there are certain steps you can take to keep yourself safe.
Trying to avoid the food that triggers your allergy is obviously important, but even with the utmost vigilance, accidental exposures can still happen, Dr. Fadugba explains. That’s why she recommends carrying two EpiPens (with more severe reactions, you may need to use more than one to get your symptoms under control) and wearing a medical alert bracelet that tells others of your food allergy in case you’re unable to in an emergency situation. It’s also a good idea to make sure your friends and any restaurant staff are aware of your allergy, she says.
If you have symptoms, act fast and use your epinephrine auto-injector. “Don’t delay,” Dr. Hong says. You’ll also want to make sure that someone calls 911. “You should be taken to the emergency room for further treatment and monitoring,” Dr. Fadugba says.
Most people with food allergies will only have mild or moderate symptoms like hives, itching, or facial swelling, Dr. Fadugba says, but severe reactions can and do happen. If you’ve been prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, don’t hesitate to use it if you suspect you’re having an allergic reaction—even if it doesn't seem "severe enough," because these reactions can become serious very quickly. “It’s life-saving,” Dr. Hong says.