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How to deal with allergies

13th June 2018

I know virtually everyone is allergic or intolerant to something, however I feel like I have more allergies than your average person! There are a good list of 20+ things, however in this post I’m going to explain how I deal with the major ones. Also, before anyone doesn’t think it’s that big a deal being allergic to something, ‘surely you can just take a tablet and it will stop the reaction’ … no, not for me. Plus that really doesn’t work with many allergies at all. Additionally, there are so many allergies that are way more serious and life threatening, for example with my nut allergy I can die within 5 minutes and no tablet is going to stop that!!

I’ve had my allergies my whole life. My family first guessed I had a nut allergy at 18 months old and then being in anaphylactic shock when I was 4 confirmed this! Unfortunately, the period of time discovering your allergies is the worst, especially when no one can work it out. I’ve spent many a time in the doctors having blood tests, been prescribed a whole host of different allergy tablets and waited for months at a time whilst they tried to work out what I was reacting to. In my opinion self diagnosis has so far been most successful for me! I am in no way telling you that you shouldn’t go to the doctors, at the end of the day they are there to try and help. I’m just saying that from my personal experience we have often worked out the issue/allergy before they have.

Below is list of some of the allergies that affect me the most:

  • Groundnuts (peanuts)
  • Tree Nuts (cashew nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, brazil nuts)
  • Animals with fur including cats and dogs
  • House dust mite (a really fun one!)
  • Oats
  • Hayfever (pollen allergy)
  • Gluten intolerance
  • Many chemicals found in skin products

 

I have learned many random but valuable tips through my experiences of living with severe allergies. Here are some that I would like to share to help you as an individual to either cope with allergies better yourself, or to try and better understand someone else’s situation:

1. READ THE LABEL – whether there’s a certain ingredient in products such as shampoo or suncream that you are allergic to, or whether it’s a specific ingredient, eg nuts, reading the label is the most important thing you can do!
It’s sad that more people are being diagnosed with allergies, however at least this is making people more aware of possible situations and companies are generally labelling products more clearly, largely thanks to the hard work of the Anaphylaxis Campaign in raising awareness! For example, now most of the known allergens (such as wheat, milk, oats and nuts) will be put in a bold font, at least on products in the UK. This is to help make it clear that the product could be a risk to some people with allergies.

Pointer: a common mistake amongst my friends and often myself… checking the labels almost comes naturally to us now but at the same time it’s tedious and it is easy to sometimes fall into the trap of scan reading it. DO NOT DO THIS! The amount of times I’ve nearly eaten something because we thought it said ‘may contain traces of nuts’ as I’m sure you’ll soon realise virtually everything says this so that people can cover themselves! However, it turns out we have often scan read it wrong and it actually says ‘contains traces of nuts’! Big red flag!! Just be careful and don’t chance it. At the end of the day, reading a label doesn’t take long, so spend those extra few seconds to double check. It’s your body and your life you are trying to protect, so protect it.

 

2. DON’T BE SHY – I think this is probably the most important factor, therefore I have written a separate blog post named  ‘Don’t be shy about your allergies’, explaining this point in more detail.

I think being open about your allergies can help you in nearly every possible situation. Whether it’s at school, work or ordering food in a restaurant. People can’t help you if they don’t know what you’re allergic to, or if they don’t know the procedure for if anything was to happen. However hard it seems you just need to be open about it, even if you feel like you are being a pain or overreacting. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

3. CROSS CONTAMINATION – with food-related allergies this can often be the biggest issue. You just need to Google it and there are endless cases of people dying or becoming hospitalised from cross contamination alone. It is a high risk, however once again due to people being more familiar and strict with trying not to cross contaminate I think the issue is getting better.

When I was younger and had my first anaphylactic shock it was due to cross contamination. We suspected I had a nut allergy at the time but ordered an Indian takeaway making sure we didn’t order any dishes with nuts in. However, I still reacted and we later found out when contacting the restaurant that it would have been due to cross contamination. The worst thing was that I hadn’t even eaten my food. I literally went to put a spoonful in and the food only touched my lip but immediately I felt sick and then it all went downhill from there. It’s amazing how sensitive your lips can be; even now if I’m unsure on a whether I may react to a food I just place it against my lip for a few seconds and if I feel sick or my lip tingles I know I shouldn’t eat it. Anyway, going back to the cause of the reaction… takeaways and restaurants can often be the biggest culprit for nut-related allergic reactions, because they often use the same spoons to serve more than one type of dish and many of the dishes contain nuts or nut oils. Due to this I haven’t had a Chinese or Indian takeaway since then (it’s a hard life), instead I have to cope with supermarket-bought or homemade dishes where ingredients are known. These are lovely but I’m sure all of you takeaway addicts know it’s not quite the same! By all means speak to your local takeaway, explain the issue and see what they can do. I’ve tried this but none of the companies have been particularly confident with it, therefore I haven’t taken the risk. The thing is you could talk to the manager and they could understand the seriousness, but all it takes is one employee who’s not thinking properly or doesn’t understand the seriousness to make a life-threatening mistake.

I don’t really think people understand how bad cross contamination can be and that it is a big deal, which is where the problem often occurs. A lot of people don’t realise how common it is. Anyone who has worked in hospitality has probably seen it without even realising. But even something so simple like getting an ice-cream down at the beach isn’t as simple as you may think. You have that hard decision of whether to go for cookie dough, white chocolate or for some of you the chocolate peanut butter flavour. However, they use the same ice-cream scoop in virtually all places. All they do is dip in a pot of ‘warm’ water, but how frequently is it really cleaned?! Annoyingly, due to this I can rarely get ice-cream from these parlours due to the seriousness of my allergy, and instead I have to opt for a pre-packaged ice-lolly. I mean, there is nothing wrong with a Twister, but it’s not quite as exciting as a new exotic flavour of ice-cream! The point of this is just to be observant and cautious because cross contamination can cause more problems and is more common than you may think!

 

4. WHEN ABROAD – I personally love to travel and I want to see as much of the world as possible. When I was younger I thought this wouldn’t really be a possibility, but with careful planning and good initiative when you’re away, I grew up able to experience many parts of the world with my family. We weren’t going to let it beat us! Obviously you can’t be flippant about the seriousness of travelling with allergies and you need to be more cautious than other people; you can’t necessarily try everything, but it doesn’t mean you should have to stay at home and not explore!

From the minute we knew what allergies I had, my mum was on it, working out how to make things safer for me when I’m abroad. And now I’m at an age where I need to fend for myself on my own adventures I’m going to do the same thing. She would always look into and translate phrases or words that could come in helpful. For example, ‘my daughter has a severe nut allergy, can you cater for her?’. We then printed this with the appropriate translation onto a little card so it could be handed over to a waiter or to the chef if it was a language we didn’t speak. It’s amazing how many places have said they can’t guarantee the dishes are nut free and many of the meals I was looking at had nut oil etc in. This is where I learnt that chips are often cooked in and pizza dough often contains a type of nut oil (often peanut oil), yet I always thought they would be my safe foods! If you learn and write down the translations for any other allergens then this helps in supermarkets too when you’re trying to pick out your food. I know technology is advancing highly and there are apps you can get that take a picture of the phrase (for example the ingredients on something) and it translates it for you. This is amazing, however I personally do not rely solely on this as from my recent experience, not every word is picked up which does cause some issues! It is also worth trying to learn some words in the language as this could be more beneficial. Even though these methods can massively help it may not always be worth just taking a risk, so if you don’t feel confident that you know the answer and you have a serious allergy, find an alternative!

Researching a bit into the country and common food is also advisable. This may end up making you come across some popular food that does actually contain what you’re allergic to and should therefore avoid. I think having a little bit of an idea before you go away of some foods you can likely have or should avoid is recommended and may help to put your mind slightly at ease.

 

5. BEING DIAGNOSED – as I previously mentioned I have not always found doctors the most helpful when it comes to diagnosing any issues. Obviously, they have helped confirm things such as a nut allergy, however my family suspected it beforehand and it took an anaphylactic reaction before they would confirm it! 

I have become quite good now at trying to work out what I might be reacting to and then making the conscious decisions and required changes to minimise my risk of reaction. A few years back I had constant stomach pains and they would often get worse after eating. As time went on they became excruciating. With the knowledge I already had developed over the years and with help from Google, I realised that I may have a gluten intolerance. With great difficulty, I cut gluten out of my life completely for a week but still had pains so figured maybe it was a lactose intolerance instead. Anyway, moral of the story is yeah you may see some immediate effects but you don’t always magically get better instantly. Also, I didn’t really realise how many products had gluten in, who’d have known even some gummy sweets contain it! Anyway, it took a lot of willpower and finding new gluten-free foods that I actually enjoyed to enable me to persevere with being gluten-free. You know people often say that gluten-free food tastes like a sponge or cardboard? They’re not necessarily wrong! However, having an allergy (or just lifestyle choice) that requires you to cut out certain allergens or foods is gradually getting less restrictive as there are so many alternatives available nowadays. And it does get easier! Even though I do still have some gluten from time to time, I try to be gluten free as much as possible so that I am then able to treat myself every so often.

I am not a doctor, so don’t take my word for it, but personally I would say that if you are getting rashes, becoming itchy, have red or sore eyes, a tingly tongue (or lips), come up in bumps/ hives, get stomach pains, throw up or need to relieve your bowel frequently after eating something then it would sound to me like you have an allergy or intolerance to it! That could sound pretty obvious, but for some reason it can be easy to ignore the symptoms and carry on eating the same food! I mean I did it, I had the worst stomach pains but I didn’t think about it or change my diet for weeks. And the only thing that ended up doing was making it worse! Our bodies are sensitive and we need to look after them… leading me nicely onto the next point.

 

6. CHECKING OUT WEBSITES THAT ARE THERE TO HELP – When I was first diagnosed with my nut allergy we came across the Anaphylaxis Campaign (check out their site here https://www.anaphylaxis.org.uk/). They can help to give advice about living with anaphylaxis as well as texting you allergy alerts when it’s discovered that a food product has been labelled incorrectly and could be of risk to you.
Another website to check out is MedicAlert (https://www.medicalert.org.uk/). They also help provide useful allergies as well as providing jewellery, for both genders, to help make people aware of your allergies. I have a bracelet which has their logo and name on the front to make it more obvious to anyone in an emergency and then on the reverse side it states my allergy and provides contact details on it. This is especially helpful if you have a reaction when you are out by yourself or are abroad as it allows a complete stranger to gain more information in order to help you.

 

7. HAVING RESPECT FOR YOUR BODY –  I think people (including myself) often forget how precious our bodies are, but that they are also very sensitive. We do only get one life so just take care of yourself. At the end of the day it is in our best interest!

If you are anything like me and have a massively compromised immune system or you’re always getting ill, yes there may not be a way to fully solve this, however you need to try as best as you can! It took me a long time to realise this. However, after seeing all the issues that it can and does cause, I’ve realised it should really be a big priority in my life.
I think having a healthy lifestyle is important to anyone, however especially if you have allergies or a really crap immune system! I’ve come to learn that what you eat can massively affect you. If you think you are allergic or intolerant to a food try and cut it out. It may be hard, but at the end of the day you are likely to only make things worse.

To clear the allergen out of your body I was told that you need to strictly avoid it for a minimum of 5 days, but preferably at least 2 or more weeks. I know I’m intolerant to gluten and yes I do have it sometimes, however, I make sure I fully cut it out of my diet for a few weeks at a time and then I treat myself to something with gluten every now and then because my body is then more able to cope with it. It’s all to do with moderation and will power! This should probably be the case whether you have an intolerance or not. For example, making sure you don’t have too much gluten anyway, that’s not me saying have gluten-free flour based products, but just replacing some gluten based meals with alternatives every now and then can help. At the end of the day I only realised that I had this intolerance for a couple years and before that I had gluten in virtually every meal and snack! Maybe I was intolerant my whole life and it had taken me until then to realise it? A simple example of how I substitute gluten-based foods for alternatives is that now instead of having gluten or gluten-free pasta, I often replace it with cubed courgette (zucchini), sauteed in either butter or coconut oil. If you like a bit of heat then you can spice it up with some garlic and chilli flakes. It’s surprising how filling and tasty this pasta alternative can be.

I think people are often of the opinion that working out or exercising is either too much effort, too time consuming, boring or not important because they eat healthily, or they just don’t need to lose weight. I would disagree. I don’t try to lose weight, however I can see the importance of exercising and how it can improve your entire body’s health. I am in no way saying you have to exercise everyday or that you need to join the gym, because you don’t! But it can be so simple AND enjoyable! I have found that when my whole body is in a healthier state, my immune system is stronger and I am less reactive to my allergy triggers.

Below are some suggestions of what I like to do:
1. Jogging on a rebounder in front of the TV
2. Hula hooping outside and enjoying the fresh air, best enjoyed in the summer!
3. Going for a walk – it doesn’t have to be a hike or for very long. Even just 15 minutes can do the world of good!
4. Going swimming

These are all so simple and can take up as much or as little time as you like. But in reality, I’m sure there are a few days a week you have a spare 20 mins or so, or can go on your phone for 20 mins less for example! Just this small effort can help you to look after your body! Recently, I’ve been really trying to watch what I’m eating, including making sure that I’m not having too much of a certain thing. Alongside this, I’m making sure I work out a couple times a week, get all my vitamins and honestly I don’t even remember when my body felt this good. I used to get ill all the time but since fully being on top of what I’m doing and making sure I’m also getting a decent sleep, I have noticed a massive reduction in how often I am ill and a decrease in the severity of my smaller allergies.

 

N.B. I am not a doctor or nutritionist and am not qualified to make any official recommendations on allergies or dietary advice… everything I write is just shared from my own experience and what I have discovered that has so far worked for me personally.

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