My Experience with Allergies
It is estimated that around 20% of the UK’s population suffer with one or more allergy disorders and this number is rising.
By Izzy Wicks.
As an allergy sufferer myself, I know the anxiety and worry connected to living with an allergy and the toll this can take on your everyday life. Although it is often assumed that you are born with an allergy, I developed a severe allergy to peanuts aged 8.
To give you an idea of my experience, it begun in my early childhood. Growing up the in the United States, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were pretty much a staple in every child’s diet, and I ate them regularly, not realising that with each exposure to peanuts I was developing more and more of a reaction. As I reached the age of 6, I started noticing that after eating peanuts my mouth and throat would tingle and itch, and my lips would feel swollen, eventually developing into nausea. However, this would often occur when I had eaten a curry or spicy food and could find no other way of describing my reaction other than as a spicy hot feeling.
As time went on, I would say that nut bars and crunchy-nut cereal was also spicy, at which point my parents realised my 7-year-old self had no other way of describing the sensation of what had to be an allergic reaction. From then on, I avoided nuts at all costs but had the occasional slip-up whilst out for dinner or at a friend’s house, and my reactions worsened. It is scary not knowing how your body will react to the next exposure, and by my teen years, antihistamines were not enough.
It wasn’t until I was 18 and about to flee the nest to do a ski season that I decided to undergo allergy testing, and was finally told I had a peanut allergy (and oddly, a cat saliva allergy too!) and was prescribed an EpiPen. I am now 22 and have fortunately never had to use my EpiPen (touch-wood), as I have found ways of managing my allergy and minimising my risk of exposure wherever possible. There are some simple ways of creating a safer environment for you or your child so that the allergy does not stop you from living life to the full.
Day to day, allergy sufferers will encounter numerous hurdles, but some may come as more of a surprise than others. For me, getting on a plane is now something which requires some forward planning, despite it being a seemingly mundane task. This began when I travelled alone to South Africa aged 16, and within 10 minutes of sitting down I was offered some roasted peanuts… I then noticed that everyone around me was tucking into the flight snacks, and I hadn’t yet advised them of my allergy. I then began to panic that the peanuts would get into the recirculated air and would cause me to have a reaction. Thankfully, this was not the case, but I sure learnt my lesson.
Nowadays, airlines are used to dealing with allergies and are usually very accommodating. Despite it being a little embarrassing, I now advise the airline of my allergy well before the flight, and an announcement is made over the tannoy that there is an allergy sufferer onboard, and no nuts are to be eaten on the plane. My family and I have a little giggle as we can see people sheepishly stow away their bag of mixed nuts. Airlines such as British Airways have an allergy policy outlining how they can mitigate the risk to allergy sufferers such as allowing pre-boarding to sanitise your area ensuring it is allergen-free. Jet2 and Ryanair will also suspend the selling of all nuts whilst you are onboard. It is always useful to research what precautions your airline can make prior to booking.
Whilst away on holiday, I have found it useful to learn how to say ‘I am allergic to X’ in the language of the country I am visiting, or write it down on a piece of paper so that I can show to waiters or hotel staff. This always provides a little entertainment as the waiter pities my attempt at pronunciation, the best being the Afrikaans translation for peanuts – ‘grondboontjiebotter’ (need I say more?). I also try to avoid places where cross-contamination is unavoidable, like ice cream shops or buffet-style restaurants, instead, I opt for a packaged ice cream with ingredients that I can understand and choose cuisines that do not cook with peanuts and groundnut oil and avoid those that do. For me, that means avoiding Thai food.
As of December 2014, it is now law that all restaurants and places serving food provide proper allergen information regarding the food that they serve. They must list which of the main 14 allergens their food contains, allowing you to check before ordering. This has been life-changing for me, enabling me to feel comfortable and confident eating out and socialising. I have also found that chain restaurants are often more reliable, and in some cases (like Wagamama) they will even have a separate allergy chef, and your order will be handled by the manager, ensuring your experience is as safe as possible.
Its also useful to know that when choosing what food to buy, whether that be snacks or other packaged goods, the 14 common allergens (celery, cereals, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, nuts, peanuts, sesame, soya, sulphur dioxide) must be emphasised on the ingredients list. They are usually displayed in bold but may also be underlined. This makes it quick and easy to work out what food is safe to buy.
Whether you are a parent of an allergy sufferer or have allergies yourself, the best way you can equip yourself is with knowledge, as ultimately, knowledge is power. This means understanding your allergen triggers, and the best way of doing this is with allergy testing. This investigation is called skin prick testing, where a small amount of an allergen is dropped onto the skin. If there is a histamine (allergic) reaction, a small weal will form. This allows you to confirm if an allergic reaction is linked to a certain allergen, whether that be airborne, inhaled, or ingested, and the results are delivered in as little as 15 minutes. I found this process to be quite comfortable and most people tolerate it well. After I underwent allergy testing, it was reassuring to finally have an explanation and a diagnosis for my reactions, and it also confirmed that I didn’t have an allergy to other nuts, which I had avoided for so long – I celebrated with a large box of Ferrero Rocher’s all to myself!
Unfortunately, with allergies there is no magic cure, which can be frustrating and disheartening, however, there are things that can be done to help you manage your allergy and feel confident again. By understanding your allergy and teaching friends and family how they can support you, life with an allergy doesn’t have to be limiting.
If you or your child is struggling with allergies and would like more information, or to book an appointment with an allergy specialist, please call the clinic on 0118 466 0935 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.