What it’s like to be Allergic to Life

Today marks the beginning of Allergy Awareness Week. As a family, allergies impact us every day. Why? Who knows. Here are a few of the facts.

Allergy is the most common chronic disease in Europe. Up to 20% of patients with allergies struggle daily with the fear of a possible asthma attack, anaphylactic shock, or even death from an allergic reaction

EAACI, 2016.

In the UK, an astonishing 44% of adults suffer from allergies, and 48% of those have two or more allergies (Mintel, 2010, via AllergyUK).

I have had allergies as long as I can remember, including dogs and cats mainly. My parents always kept pets, and so by age 14 I had actually developed allergic asthma which required daily inhalers! Over the years, other allergies that have crept up include:

  • Lanolin, otherwise known as Anhydrous Wool Fat or Wool Fat Ointment, commonly added to treatments for eczema.
  • Citrus peel – oranges mostly.
  • Pollen, all year round.
  • 3 types of antibiotic.
  • Sterets (little swab squares used for sterilising pre-injection.
  • Sumatriptan, used to treat migraines.
  • Milk protein.

Most of them are manageable by either avoiding them, or making healthcare professionals aware that I cannot use them, or by taking a tablet when avoidance is impossible (pollen during hayfever season, for example). But my less common, surprisingly dangerous allergy, is citrus. I have a pretty bad reaction, too. My throat itches and begins to swell, and my skin balloons. Mam will remind you all the time she dragged me to the doctors looking somewhere between a radish and a beetroot because an orange touched my face. Every week at Slimming World, some bugger in the room is sat chomping on an orange! I feel like a paranoid wreck, surveying the room to see where it is, and avoid it. I can smell them a mile away. I can’t pick them up in a shop, I can’t eat anything where the peel is used in the cooking process. I can eat the fruit or the juice though, thankfully.

Mam will remind you all the time she dragged me to the doctors looking somewhere between a radish and a beetroot because an orange touched my face.

Jack also has a rather complex map of allergies, which includes dogs, cats and milk protein. Thankfully with age, the milk protein allergy has improved dramatically. As a baby though, it was pretty severe, resulting in vomiting up full feeds, constant pain and crying, persistent watery stools and eczema. To manage it, I had to wean him early against medical advice and completely eradicate dairy from my own diet due to Jack being breastfed. Now, he can tolerate one glass of skimmed milk a day, plus yoghurt and cheese.

When he was smaller, he also had allergies to soya, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, paraffin based emollients (same as me!) and a skin prick test also revealed a sensitivity to peanuts. Luckily most of these have faded into obscurity, but he has real troubles with suncream. Every year, I change the suncream because whatever was fine the year before is no longer fine this year. When he went back to school on Tuesday, his support assistant was worried his cheeks were red and bumpy, and whether he was becoming ill, but he had worn suncream a lot at the weekend and so had obviously reacted. So now we are on the hunt for a hypoallergenic sun cream which isn’t made by Boots, Nivea, Superdrug or Banana Boat. Fun times.

For us, I feel we are constantly being vigilant to our surroundings, looking out for things that can cause us problems. We are taking daily medications, and we hope that the allergies will not bypass this, but sometimes they do and it can be so painful, uncomfortable and stressful – and all we can do to help ourselves is just wait until our systems stop attacking their perceived invaders which can take hours or even days.

Something commonly underestimated, is the side effects of allergies. These include eczema, asthma and the potentially deadly anaphylaxis.

Eczema is pretty uncomfortable and, in severe cases, compromises the integrity of the skin which can open the door to a whole host of infections. A little girl on my street as a child had to be wet bandaged every night and unwrapped every morning, and her mum used to go to the kitchen and turn up the radio so she didn’t have to listen to her baby scream.

Asthma is a respiratory condition which, if an attack is triggered, can become serious very quickly. Jack’s asthma is triggered virally and with allergies, and has resulted in hospital admissions on far too many occasions.

But anaphylaxis can be incredibly fast which is what makes it particularly dangerous. Unfortunately for many, they don’t know they suffer anaphylaxis until it happens. If it isn’t treated quickly, patients are at risk of their airway closing. Once it has happened once, they are issued with an EpiPen which contains adrenaline to help the body fight the immune reaction.

The bottom line: don’t underestimate how serious an allergic reaction can be – even if the suffer does a dashing impression of a beetroot for a face like I did.

For more information, visit AllergyUK.org

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