That’s what I said to my boyfriend the morning after the first night I stayed over at his, when he offered me peanut butter on toast for breakfast. We joke about it all the time and now we’ve been together for a little while he’s adjusting to it rather well, however it’s just one of the many occasions when a nut allergy sufferer like myself falls victim to the fact that the people who don’t really know you either forget, just don’t understand or both.
Statistics tell us that there are now around 21 million adults in the UK with at least one allergy and 6-8% of children have one too. The UK stands at one of the top 3 countries in the world for allergies and £900 million a year is spent on healthcare for allergy sufferers, when you bear in mind that we pay for our own prescriptions as well that’s a hell of a lot of money. But somehow allergies are still not being taken seriously by some people, and some of these people happen to be the most important people in your life or people who could potentially kill you.
It sounds dramatic but let’s have a look at a potential scenario, a boy who is allergic to all nuts (not just peanuts) goes to a pizza restaurant in London. In the restaurant they serve nuts on certain pizzas but the menu advises that they can prepare nut free meals if you request them from your server. The boy requests the meal to be nut free, the waitress has dealt with these kind of requests before and is confident and reassuring. However when the boy tells her he has a nut allergy she presumes that he must mean peanuts only. She dutifully writes this on her pad without asking for more information and passes it on to the chef. The chef is preparing food in the kitchen, it is very busy in the kitchen and he is sharing his workspace with another chef. The other chef is preparing a pizza which has a pine nut topping, chef 1 looks at the order and sees there is an allergy warning about peanuts, chef 1 knows that the only thing in the kitchen containing peanuts is a dessert which is prepared in another part of the kitchen and stored separately from the pizza ingredients. He prepares the pizza at the side of his friend and cooks the pizza in the same oven, unbeknownst to either chef some of the pine nuts have become cross contaminated with the nut free pizza and have baked beneath the cheese topping, when chef 1 comes to remove the pizza he doesn’t see the nuts due to this. The boy is served his pizza by the confident, reassuring waitress and tucks in, he smiles at his companion, but the smile suddenly becomes frozen as he struggles to breathe… anaphylactic shock starts to kick in as his body fights the allergen and his airways begin to close up, his tongue is swollen and he is covered in hives, he is panicking and fearing for his life. Nobody in the restaurant is trained to use an epipen but the boy manages to inject himself in the thigh, somebody calls an ambulance… It is 9pm on a busy Saturday evening in London and the ambulance response time is a long one, although the epipen can keep the boy alive for a short while it is not long enough. By the time the paramedics arrive the boy has died.
It sounds dramatic I know but these situations DO happen. People are just not educated enough about allergies to understand just how dangerous they really are. New food fads such as self-diagnosed coeliac sufferers and people following the next new diet and calling it an ‘intolerance’ or allergy are causing people to just not take allergies seriously enough. For some allergy sufferers the allergen may cause only a mild amount of discomfort; an upset stomach, a slight rash and a migraine. But for others it can send them into full anaphylactic shock. Imagine the panic of not being able to breathe as your tongue and throat swell, painful hives breaking out all over your body and your major organs beginning to shut down the only thing that might help is an injection which will only boost you momentarily while you hope and pray that the ambulance will arrive in time. Maybe if more people thought about how that might feel, about how painful and terrifying that is, they would begin to take allergies more seriously.
This year for the first time an Indian restaurant owner has been charged with manslaughter after a man with a nut allergy ate at his restaurant and died shortly after. This comes after all food establishments were ruled by law to provide allergy warnings or at least a detailed list of ingredients on all food they serve. It’s not just the taste of these foods that can kill us either. For some sufferers just the smell or touch of a food can affect them as well.
The incident with my boyfriend was never really dangerous it was a slip of the tongue that he realised straight away and corrected, since then he has dealt with my allergy amazingly, it has always been a fear of mine that the person I fell in love with would not be able to cope with giving up nuts and living a life of checking ingredients at every supermarket and store, forfeiting that curry or Chinese takeaway, but he has. There have however been people less understanding, servers and bar staff who inform me ‘it’s a cocktail/pizza/Sunday roast it doesn’t have nuts in it!’ as if I’m an idiot who hasn’t lived with my allergy for 20 years and doesn’t understand how it works. That guy on the airplane who after the announcement said ‘I’m still going to eat my nuts, they can’t stop me’ unaware that me and my family were sat directly behind him (my mum soon gave him a piece of her mind). Or the doctors/hairdressers/nail technicians/masseuses and all the other people who don’t take it seriously when I ask to check the oils, sprays and other products they intend to put on my skin.
The problem with allergies is a lack of understanding. This is something that should be taught in schools. It should be drummed into children from a young age, we should all be educated on allergies, not just nuts but all allergies. It is important that people understand that life threatening means life threatening and that giving nuts/egg/fish etc. to the allergic person is in some ways the equivalent of holding a gun to their head. Employees in food establishments that advertise the service of providing an allergy free meal should go on training courses to better understand the food they are serving and the risks involved. Education is key to improving lives of what is now millions of children and adults in the UK alone.
Education is also key however for allergy sufferers themselves. In the past 12 months I have read of at least 4 allergy related deaths where the adults and children who died were not carrying their epipens and were eating at Indian and Chinese restaurants. I was lucky that my mum and dad were great with my allergy to peanuts and tree nuts which I was diagnosed with when I was four years old. I am also allergic to cats, dust mites, certain types of grass, dog saliva, suffer from exercise related asthma and mild hayfever. My parents joined the anaphylaxis campaign nearly straight away and got me the help and advice we all needed to understand my allergy. In 20 years since diagnosis I have never eaten Indian or Chinese food that I haven’t prepared myself at home, I check the labels on everything and become my server’s personal pain in the ass when I eat out even if its food I’ve eaten or a restaurant I’ve eaten at before it doesn’t matter, things change. I was lucky enough to go on a course with anaphylaxis campaign when I was 14 it helped me a lot as they gave advice on how to deal with your allergy as you gained independence and became an adult, from my first holiday abroad without my family to dealing with club bouncers who search your bag. These things have been the key behind my no nonsense approach to my allergy, if I am ever unsure or wary I remove myself from that situation it’s just not worth the risk, some people don’t like it I often find colleagues to be a huge problem as were schoolmates but the key is to be firm and confident to go at it with the approach that saving face and shutting up is not going to save your life.