The Blog

What It's Like Living With a Life-Threatening Allergy

It's a huge pain in the arse. And actually quite scary sometimes too. I have a fair few food allergies: nuts, which can set me off into an anaphylactic reaction, fish, makes my lips swell, hideous stomach cramps and vomiting, kiwi, bananas, mustard, raw eggs, milk - the list goes on. Not to mention hayfever, eczema, mild asthma.. yep, I was one ofkids.

It's actually more annoying than anything. The constant reading of ingredients, having to ask if there's nuts in every dish every single time I eat out. Being told "we can't quite be sure" and so having to either leave the restaurant, or just take the risk anyway.

It's a huge pain in the arse. And actually quite scary sometimes too.

I have a fair few food allergies: nuts, which can set me off into an anaphylactic reaction; fish, which makes my lips swell, gives me hideous stomach cramps and vomiting; kiwi, bananas, mustard, raw eggs, milk - the list goes on. Even the smell of fish being cooked can set me off - a bit of a nightmare when you sit near the kitchen at work. Not to mention hayfever, eczema, mild asthma... yep, I was one of those kids.

When I was younger, I was pretty allergic to dairy and eggs - although luckily this has calmed down slightly now. I remember an anecdote from my mother who was taking a very little me for a stroll in my buggy. She bought herself an ice-cream, but obviously couldn't give me one, so bought me just a cone instead. My mother was then told off by a total stranger for being a selfish parent for only buying herself an ice-cream.

Now this I can kind of excuse because allergies weren't really "heard of" back then. But today? There's really no excuse.

I find it incredibly embarrassing sitting in a restaurant querying every dish on the menu and reeling off your allergies to a flustered waitress, while they scurry back and forth from the kitchen checking with the chef.

People just normally think I'm fussy, so I usually just pick a couple of allergies and go with those.

My latest battle came with the airline I'm due to fly with when I go on holiday soon; I was told they might be a charge as I had more than two allergies. Yep, that's right, I was going to have to pay money because I was born with food allergies I can do nothing about. Obviously I kicked up a stink, and they didn't charge in the end, but I ended up narrowing my allergies down to three, so I didn't seem like I was being a difficult food snob.

On a previous short flight, I was actually told off by the air hostess for not informing them of my allergies (I didn't even think we'd be getting food). I ended up waiting about half an hour, then after asking again twice, I was given some crackers.

I've had to wait at restaurants - no matter how upmarket or expensive - while they return my food because they failed to take note that I'd asked for no nuts or no fish, and served my food with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts, or a decoration of anchovies.

About 15 years ago, my mother and I noticed warnings of nut ingredients started to appear more frequently on food packaging, particularly cereals. When I was about eight, I decided to write to the major cereal manufacturers (I was a huge cereal addict) to ask if they could make their foods on nut-free lines. To cut a long story short, the response was no.

During the next few of years, "may contain nut traces" started to appear on more and more foods - some of them actually pretty laughable. One memorable incident was the nut ingredient warning on a bottle of Tesco's lemonade.

I made the decision I would have to ignore the nut warning, otherwise I'd soon have an incredibly restricted diet - even more so than it is now.

Although I've got used to it now, it still affects my everyday life.

Now, every time I eat out or buy pre-prepared food, I'm taking a risk because very few places can affirmatively say: "No, this doesn't contain nuts."

I don't really have the dilemma of what to eat at restaurants; I automatically cross out anything with fish or nuts in, which is usually rather a lot. When I ate at Busaba Eathai, I was told there was only one item on the menu which didn't contain fish or nuts. So at least that was an easy choice.

I actually get excited - yes, excited - when restaurants have a *contains nuts* label on their dishes. Because believe me, they're pretty hard to come by.

I have to think twice about where I travel. IndoChina? Hell no, it's a peanut paradise. India? Probably out of the question too. But fair enough, they don't have an allergy "epidemic", as our society was described as having by last night's BBC Horizon's programme.

So for those of us who do have to carry an Epipen around, and, on a weekly basis, have to confront the fear of eating food we're not sure is safe for us, I think it's time for a bit more awareness in the food industry.

I can only hope when I have children, they don't have to go through the same ordeals I, and so many others, endure so frequently.

Visit Anaphylaxis for more information on severe allergies