Living with a food allergy

Living with a food allergy

I’ve never really written about diet or food preferences here before. Which is strange because health and fitness are as much influenced by what we put in our bodies as what we do with them.

I think I try to stay away from it because I am not an expert, or an exemplar of a healthy diet. So although I might share the odd vegetarian recipe, I would never feel comfortable with saying “EAT THIS AND BE HEALTHY”.

However, there are some foods I just can’t eat, because they will either make me very ill or possibly kill me. (It brings a whole new meaning to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, I can tell you.)

I have a potentially fatal allergy to peanuts, and I have a non-life threatening intolerance to almonds, hazelnuts and possibly other tree nuts not including walnuts (for obvious reasons, I’ve not tried them all).

Allergy, intolerance… what’s the difference?

The two words tend to get used interchangeably, but there is a huge difference.

  • Intolerance to a food can make a person ill because they have trouble digesting that food. This can be highly unpleasant and the effects can even last for days, but it is not life threatening.
  • Allergies to a food can result in anything from itching and sickness, through to a potentially life threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.

So, while eating something with almonds in can upset my stomach badly, eating something with peanuts in could cause a far worse reaction.

Nuts and peanuts… what’s the difference?

I remember a few years back there was a collective cry of “has the world gone insane?” when packets of peanuts started appearing with the words May contain nuts on. “Of course they have nuts in”, people said.

But that’s not strictly true. Because a peanut is actually a type of legume that grows in the ground (like mung beans, lentils, chickpeas, endamame… all things I can eat quite happily). And someone with a tree nut allergy but no peanut allergy could theoretically eat them all day long without having a reaction. But they need to know if they were produced in a way that means there could be cross-contamination with other nuts.

Getting a diagnosis

When I was growing up, no one really knew or talked about food allergies. Allergy was a word for sneezing when you were in the presence of pollen, or dust, or cats. I was asthmatic (still am) and allergic to all of the above. As it happens, asthma and allergies are closely linked.

I grew up knowing I couldn’t eat nuts or peanuts cause they made me ill, but I don’t think the severity of it was widely known back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Even my mother, who works in healthcare, didn’t see it as something which required medical intervention or prevention. Nuts and peanuts made me sick, so my parents avoided knowingly giving me any nuts/peanuts. I only ever ate them accidentally at the odd party buffet.

But one thing I was maybe too young to explain was that when I ate nuts, I felt nauseous and was eventually sick. But when I ate peanuts I felt nauseous and was almost instantly sick, my mouth and ears felt itchy and it tasted like just the worst thing ever. It was horrible, but I had no idea that it could kill me.

It wasn’t until I was 21 and at university that I was finally diagnosed with a peanut allergy after suffering a massive asthma attack following a Chinese meal. I hadn’t had an asthma attack since I was a child so it took me completely by surprise, but I still carried an inhaler on me due to being generally wheezy and prone to chest infections (side note; running for the last five years has greatly helped me manage my asthma).

On this occasion, my inhaler didn’t work. My friend called an ambulance and I was taken to the nearest hospital. On the way they gave me a nebuliser and I remember thinking the elasticated strap was really annoying me as it itched the back of my head. When they lifted me out of the ambulance, someone asked if I had any allergies. “Nuts, maybe”, I said. “Because you’ve developed a pretty bad reaction”, they replied. I looked down and my entire chest and arms were covered in a purple rash.

A follow up appointment for a skin prick test confirmed that I am allergic to peanuts, and I was prescribed an Epi-pen to be used in case of anaphylaxis. That’s the thing, you just never know whether the next reaction will be more or less severe than the last.

Travelling with a food allergy

I was originally just going to write about travelling with a food allergy and my somewhat stressful but overall – so far – positive experience. I’ve just been to Greece and it was the first time I took these translation cards from Allergy UK which were massively helpful in communicating my allergy to people in a different language (especially one with a different alphabet). I can’t recommend them enough.

But then in the last month there have been two stories in the news relating to travel and food allergy. First, a three-year-old suffered a reaction on a flight when other passengers ate nuts.

And then I saw the story of Amy May Shead, who was left brain damaged after suffering anaphylaxis from one bite of a meal on a foreign holiday (even after using a translation card and being assured her meal contained no nuts).

Her family have launched a campaign to ban nuts and peanuts on flights in addition to their efforts to raise awareness of food allergies.

It brought it all home really, how lucky I have been so far. And while there is a lot that you can do to protect yourself, the risk is always there.

I love to travel and I don’t want my allergy to stop me from living my life to the full, but it always brings with it the stress of not always understanding what is in my food, or being able to make myself fully understood because I don’t speak the language. Or that I might end up going into anaphylaxis at 36,000 feet with no medical assistance nearby.

Saying that, though, there is some excellent help and advice out there to improve the chances of avoiding a reaction whilst abroad and I can highly recommend the factsheets from Allergy UK.

I have always found airlines to be quite understanding when I ask if they can refrain from selling nuts/peanuts and asking others not to consume them on board (though there is obviously no way of enforcing this). I’ve only experienced negativity and misunderstanding twice from fellow passengers, but once they’ve grumbled for a bit about not being able to buy a Snickers for a few hours, they usually get over it.

And I have little strategies I usually take a small supply of dried food and snacks with me, just in case I cannot immediately safely get food when I arrive. I also learn what the word for peanut is so I can check all the labels on any store-bought food (fortunately in Europe, most labels have an English translation and follow the same EU rules about emboldening allergens on lists of ingredients).

Raising awarness

This post has been a lot longer than I intended it to be, but I want to tell my story and do my small bit to raise awareness. There is still quite a long way to go, both in public and in medical professions.

Allergies and anaphylaxis are life-and-death serious, and because of that they affect every part of your life; from where you travel to where you can buy your food, what foods you eat, your social interactions and even relationships.

If you’ve made it this far, then well done! There’s just a couple of things I’d like you to take away from this:

  1. If you think you have a food allergy but aren’t sure, seek medical advice. There is more information for those in the UK on the NHS website.
  2. Learn what to do in an emergency if someone is suffering from anaphylaxis. It takes two minutes to read but could be more important than you know some day.

Thanks a lot for reading.