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Beth’s Allergy Blog Part 5: Family & Friends

Every month peanut allergy sufferer Beth Newton gives us insight into life with a severe allergy. This month she explains what her allergy means for her friends and family, and explains how we can all make life easier for allergy sufferers…

Many allergy sufferers have been dealing with allergies from a very young age. One of the first obstacles they face is starting school, [but] both my schools and college were very understanding of my allergy.

I don’t remember much for how my allergies were dealt with in primary school, but in secondary the policy was that I had to carry my own epipens at all times, in a sealed box with my action plan. A member of staff would regularly come and pull me out of my class to check that I had my medication and record its expiry date. This policy made me feel independent and meant that all my medication was at hand if needed. My allergy was never discussed openly in classes but my close friends in every class knew about my allergies and what to do, which made me feel secure.

I’ve never been made fun of or bullied for my allergies, and rightly so. I hear stories of such things and it breaks my heart to know that something so serious could be a punchline to a joke. Kids with allergies should be made to feel confident with their allergies in order to save their own lives, not be embarrassed or ashamed of them.

With friends outside of school I’ve been very lucky for the most part – in the past I’ve even felt able to travel abroad with friends confidently and comfortably. I’m lucky to have had friends that are knowledgeable and interested in my situation – they always offer to check packets, and knowing that they would do that for me is a huge comfort. Many of my friends appreciate that I am limited, and the risks involved if I don’t accept and adhere to my limitations – they don’t give it a second thought when I have to ‘dictate’ where we can eat, and I don’t feel awkward mentioning my allergies to them or at a restaurant. One of my best friends was actually there the first time I had a reaction so she knows more than anyone how scary it is for me. Other friends have learnt the ins and outs of having an allergy over time by seeing me deal with situations, and asking questions. I will also pass on the knowledge I feel is most important.

Additionally, when I was younger eating out was a rarity, and drinking obviously wasn’t an issue either. Whilst my confidence in speaking up for myself has grown as I’ve gotten older, social situations change and naturally become more difficult to navigate. Eating out is the hardest social activity to enjoy with allergies. I can’t always try new restaurants, I can’t take a bite out of someone else’s dish or a sip of a drink to try something new. As an example, when out with friends I worry about cocktails as I wonder what was mixed with the utensils before mine. Something as simple as that makes you feel different and like you are missing out or being awkward.

As I’ve gotten older I do find myself worrying a little more about my allergies with my peers. Growing up I had the exact same friends for years, and some knew my allergy inside and out, which made me feel like I didn’t think about my allergy all that often. But as you grow older, some friends change and the security of that history isn’t always there.

My parents have made my household entirely nut-free, which means I can go home and get some relief from the constant allergy awareness, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have that. I feel I can trust that my family have checked packets for me on anything that is in the house. We only eat at restaurants I can 100% feel safe eating at, and as a result we’ve eaten in one local restaurant so often they now know us all by name. I also feel safe to speak up in front of them if I’m not comfortable in a situation or at a restaurant. Still, I can’t help but feel guilty when I know my family are missing out on something because of me, and I appreciate more than I think they know how much effort goes into my safety with my allergy and how much they have advocated and supported me over the years. It isn’t an easy thing to deal with as an individual, so I can only imagine what it is like from the perspective of a parent.”

Beth’s advice on how you can help a friend or family member with an allergy

  • Triggers. Know exactly what the person is allergic to. Whether that is when it is cooked, raw or both. Know how much they can typically tolerate before a reaction.
  • Signs of a reaction. Learn to identify a reaction. What are the symptoms of their allergic reaction? Some signs are subtle. Remember that allergic reactions can change very quickly and so can the symptoms.
  • Know what to do in an emergency. Know where they keep their medication, and what steps you need to take to help them and get them the urgent medical assistance they need.
  • Be curious. If you want to know something, just ask. The more you know the better. Asking questions shows you care, and want to understand the condition. The more you spend time with someone who has an allergy the more likely you are to come across different situations and understand what to do.
  • Be their advocate. Having an allergy can be scary and intimidating. If you can tell they feel uncomfortable, speak up for them. Sometimes all we need is a little support.
  • Encourage – but be sympathetic. Encourage your friend or family member to enjoy life. To not be embarrassed or feel guilty. At the same time understand that as much as they might long to do something, it might not be physically possible for them. That can be hard to deal with, without feeling pressured at the same time. Life is a little different with allergies but that is okay.