Skip to content

Victoria's Allergen Diary Part 3: Going to University with Allergies

Welcome to The Allergen Diaries, in which we explore first-hand the challenges and problems faced by severe allergy sufferers as consumers in the foodservice industry.

By now you’ve probably met our new columnist, Erudus’s very own Victoria McEwan. Victoria suffers from a number of serious allergies, as well as some of the health issues commonly associated with them, and in her first two posts she covered the basics of living with multiple allergies, and how her allergies affect both people like her and those who work in the hospitality industry. This time she’s sharing her experiences of managing her allergies after moving away from home for the first time…

“Moving away from home to go to university (or even start work in a new place) is one of life’s most exciting times – meeting new people, living with new flatmates, exploring new places and experiencing a new found independence. But it can also be daunting, and having an allergy adds extra pressure.

An anaphylaxis campaign found that 16-24 year olds (including university students) are deemed high-risk when it comes to managing their own allergies, with hospital admissions for this reaching record highs in 2019/2020.

When you live away from home you’re taking full responsibility for your medications and what you’re eating, but it’s been found that teens and young adults are more likely to suffer fatal allergic reactions because of ‘risk taking’ behaviour and reluctance to use adrenaline auto injectors.

All this can be worrying for everyone involved – sufferers, parents, university staff, hospitality workers. So I’ve compiled a list of the best lessons I’ve learned and my top tips when it comes to leaving home with a severe allergy…

Do not be afraid about using the Adrenaline Autoinjector (referred to as an AAI)

This is a life-saving device. I was once in a position where I was reluctant to use my Adrenaline Autoinjector – also known as an ‘epi-pen’ – partially for fear that it would hurt (ironically, the other option is even less desirable than pain) and I also was unsure if my reaction was ‘bad enough’ to warrant me using it. But having now had to use mine I can honestly say it doesn’t hurt, you can barely feel it. If someone is experiencing any symptoms of anaphylaxis after coming into contact with an allergen, they must use their AAI and you should call 999 for an ambulance immediately.

Get a feel for any potential University’s stance on allergies.

When researching different university options for yourself or your child, make sure you check out the university’s allergy policy in person and by emailing. When I went to Northumbria University’s Open Day I looked in the shops on campus to see what their gluten-free options were like and talked to the catering staff at the cafes and restaurants on campus and got a really good feel for how they dealt with allergens and what sort of food they provided, which helped me to make an informed choice.

I know some universities offer catered accommodation, and if you’re choosing this option I would definitely get into contact with the university about what options they have for your allergies before any application.

I personally chose self-catered accommodation, so that I could explore and enjoy cooking for myself, have variety as well as control what was going in my meals.

Make sure AAIs are taken everywhere

It can get annoying sometimes having 2 epi-pens filling up space in your bag, but it’s so important to carry them with you at all times (and preferably a spare) in case something does happen. I like to take a substantial sized clutch bag on nights out so I don’t have to struggle to cram them in.

Plan some allergy-friendly meals

For any student in self-catered accommodation it’s a really good idea to plan some staple allergy-friendly meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are so many allergy blogs across the internet, from nut-free to dairy-free and so on, who can show you how easy it is to create meals that are allergen friendly. The Erudus Recipe Book contains a range of recipes handily labelled with allergen icons so you can easily identify which dishes are suitable and which ones to avoid.

Register with a local GP or University doctor

This is very important to do regardless of any allergies, but being registered with a doctor is crucial for arranging prescriptions for antihistamines and AAIs, so you can be sure that they’re in date.

Flatmates and peers should be aware of any allergies

People with allergies should never feel embarrassed about them – they’re something you can’t get rid of and you have to learn how to navigate through life with them and own them!

I will have a severe allergic reaction if I eat or directly touch nuts. Depending on the severity of someone’s allergy, whether it is airborne or triggered by smell, there might be different requirements and needs – but everything should be communicated to flatmates and friends. And that can be daunting, but I actually found it to be a bit of an icebreaker. My flatmates were genuinely interested in my allergies, how long I’d had them, how I found out about them and what I eat and it got everyone chatting about food, what they’re good at cooking and so on.

We discussed my nut allergy and the importance of cross-contamination and everyone agreed that if they were cooking something with nuts or gluten to clean surfaces and utensils up straight away and wipe down all surfaces and wash their hands afterwards if needed, but they said they would just cook without nuts for the majority of their meals. That’s why communication is key and no one will find you rude or awkward for not being able to eat certain foods if you just let them know why.

And flatmates, it’s important that you know what to do should your friend have an allergic reaction. Learn the symptoms of anaphylaxis, how to use an AAI and remember that after using an AAI you must call 999 for an ambulance.

Be careful on nights out

Certain cocktails may contain nuts, eggs or milk when you wouldn’t expect them to, and even certain alcohol have hidden allergens. In 2013 there was a reported case of a woman experiencing anaphylaxis due to tequila gold being aged with oak proteins. Certain gins, such as Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater use almonds in their processing, but Tanqueray London Dry Gin doesn’t contain any nuts so do your research and then when you’re ordering drinks be sure to double-check with the bar staff. Friendship groups should also be careful when trying each other’s drinks.

If you’re headed off to university single and ready to mingle, please be aware that allergens can remain in saliva from anywhere between 2 to 24 hours and there’s no guarantee that brushing teeth will get rid of the said allergen. Weird as it might feel, if you’re a sufferer and you’re going to kiss someone you should always check if they’ve recently eaten anything containing your allergen, as it is a potentially life or death situation and a trip to the hospital is probably not what neither of you wants!

Whilst on the subject of mingling, latex and casein (from milk) can be found in some brands of condoms so stock up on allergen-free condoms if you need them.

Alcohol can lead to lax judgement, making a trip to McDonald’s on the way home is riskier than usual. Try and keep the allergies of yourself and your friends in mind, and ask staff for help if you need to.

‘Freshers flu’ is worse for allergy sufferers

Just being generally ill can put sufferers at increased risk of an allergic reaction, and alcohol, exercise and certain medications can increase the severity of an allergic reaction. So look after yourself and your allergy-suffering peers.

Keep in touch

Students will be busy with new friends and new courses whilst their families at home think of them and worry about how they’re adjusting. Whichever you are – try and take time out regularly to speak to your loved ones. It’ll make everyone feel better.”

Next time on Victoria’s Allergy Diaries: Victoria explores the relationship between allergy sufferers and Caterers across the foodservice landscape.

Catch up on the first series of The Insider Diaries – Beth’s Allergy Blog, here.