Today is the start of Allergy Awareness Week, as the charity Allergy UK marks 25 years of supporting people with allergies of all kinds. Although awareness of allergies has grown over that time, there are still just as many misconceptions surrounding allergies, with many people still holding negative or dismissive attitudes towards allergies.
Allergy UK found that of 41% of those surveyed, who either have an allergy or have children who have allergic disease, almost half feel their allergies have not been taken seriously or have been dismissed when speaking about it. Shockingly, 39% say they have had their allergy dismissed at work, followed by within the home (35%) and at a restaurant (33%).
The alarming results, which mark the start of Allergy Awareness Week, also revealed that almost a third of individuals surveyed without the condition admit they are sceptical when someone says they suffer from an allergy. The respondents state they have heard derogative terms used to describe individuals with an allergy, such as ‘attention seeker’ (24%) and ‘fussy’ (20%). Despite the fact that allergy can be a chronic and life-threatening condition, 40% say they don’t think allergy is a valid reason to be off work. And almost one in ten (7%), or over 4.4 million, people in Britain do not consider an allergy to be a serious medical condition.
I’ll be honest here, I used to be one of those people. I used to think that people with mild food allergies (gastrointestinal symptoms) were fussy eaters or just trying to justify a fad diet. However I know now from my experiences with both my children that those types of allergies are very real, and although they are not as severe as anaphylactic reactions, they still cause a lot of suffering. Both of my children had colic as babies and cried for hours in pain with trapped wind and stomach cramps. My youngest daughter’s symptoms were much worse than the first and for the first year (when we were finally able to identify all of her allergies) she would wake 10-20 times a night, and at least 3 or 4 times a week she would only be able to sleep if I paced up and down with her in my arms. It was a horrendous time for the whole family.
In my experience, the worst attitude I have found towards food allergies was from doctors. We identified that my youngest daughter had cow’s milk allergy within a few weeks from birth as her reactions were very obvious and immediate, vomiting after every feed. However she still had many gastrointestinal symptoms, which suddenly got worse at around 4 months of age. She developed diarrhoea, with explosive green poos, which carried on around the clock for several weeks. At first we assumed it was just a tummy bug, but as the symptoms carried on and she was also waking in the night crying in pain, we sought medical advice. We saw one GP who told me she was ‘just a naughty baby’ and told me I should leave her to cry. I also saw another one who gave her a thorough examination, shrugged his shoulders and said ‘It’s a mystery’. I honestly started to think I was crazy, and eventually I took matters into my own hands and started my daughter and myself (as I was breastfeeding) on an exclusion diet and all her symptoms finally cleared up. It was only after I had done this that I was taken seriously and we were referred to a paediatrician, who confirmed that her symptoms and the exclusion/reintroduction diet showed that she has multiple food allergies (dairy, soya, gluten, egg, oats and all peas, beans and pulses).
I don’t think people realise the impact having allergies can have on your quality of life, even if you’re not having a reaction. Our friends and family are generally very supportive, but with multiple allergies most people don’t want to cook for us any more as they are worried about making a mistake, so we don’t get invited round for meals very often. Many people also don’t realise that eating out with multiple food allergies can be a real challenge. For example, we met up with family members for a meal out, but they hadn’t checked with the restaurant that they could cater for my children’s allergies. We found that the only thing on the menu that they could eat was a plain baked potato with plain chicken breast and vegetables – not very appetising – and they still brought a plate full of peas, which my children are allergic to!
Restaurants now have to provide allergen information by law which is very useful, and we’ve identified 2 chain restaurants where my children can actually eat something they like and so we stick to those, especially if we’re away from home. Some independent restaurants will also cater for allergies but I feel awkward phoning up and asking for a special meal. If we ever go abroad we’ll have to stick to self catering because I wouldn’t feel confident explaining all of their allergies in a foreign language.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. On the whole, friends and family have been very understanding and made a real effort to make sure my children only eat foods which are safe for them. My 5 year old is now of an age where she will go to friends’ houses for tea without me, and her friends’ parents have made an effort to make sure they provide suitable food for her. One of my friends has made the rule for her children, ‘If your friend can’t have it, you can’t have it’. Her school have also been very good, for example the class teacher keeps some sweets in her cupboard which she can give to my daughter if anyone brings in birthday cakes, so that she isn’t left out. And recently she won a prize as part of a team, and the headteacher had put aside some special prizes just for her, to make sure she was safe. Her class will be doing some cooking this term and the teacher is planning to do ‘free from’ cooking for the whole class. In addition, at the playgroup that my 2 year old and I attend, they have changed snack time so that each child has their own bowl of food (instead of helping themselves from a large plate in the middle) and they have started putting out snack that my daughter can eat safely. They also work with me to plan a suitable alternative for cooking activities, for example one week we made sandwiches, so I brought some gluten free pasta and we put the sandwich fillings on top of the pasta. Unfortunately she still had an accidental reaction as, being toddlers, there was butter smeared all over the table and she managed to lick a little bit off her finger before I managed to wipe it off.
Generally, with the support we’ve received I don’t often have to worry about my children having a reaction from accidental exposure because everyone is very careful. However I do worry about the social and emotional impact of always having to be different from everyone else – for example at birthday parties she always has to bring her own food. It’s only a small thing, and we are so lucky that both girls are now happy and healthy, but because everything we do in life seems to revolve around food I’m worried that negative emotions may build up in the future, or that they may be bullied as children are very good at picking up on things that are different.
What have your experiences been? Have you ever experienced negative attitudes or misconceptions towards food allergies?