#easytoASK

Gaining multiple allergies at the age of 14 did a lot to knock my confidence at a time when I should have been building it, I have always been quite sociable and have found making friends easy, but once my diet had become incredibly restricted and largely unmanageable – due to how sensitive my body had become – I began to feel quite isolated. I was struggling to maintain a positive attendance rate at school which left me feeling like I was missing out not just on my education, but also on socialising with my school friends. Thankfully I have always been very independent and worked hard on maintaining my education which meant I left high-school with really good GCSE’s, resulting in me having to start all over again in college. It’s difficult to cement friendships in an environment I cannot always attend, whether that be due to illness or the constant hospital appointments, again I felt very isolated and although I have a really good friendship group I would worry constantly when I was ill in my first year that I would somehow end up excluded from the group due to my absence. I was wrong to worry however, as I made some wonderful friends that have remained with me.

Socialising with allergies in itself is quite difficult, as going out requires a lot of research. Going out for food with friends isn’t as easy as just putting on a nice outfit and leaving the door, restaurants and their menus have to be extensively researched and compared with others in the surrounding area so the best option can be found.  When I was younger this would make me feel particularly awkward, and sometimes still does, when in a friendship group you’re the only one with dietary requirements (and they’re quite broad), I can wrongly feel like a bit of a burden to those I’m going for a meal with.  Due to the amount of research it can take to find somewhere to eat it can be easy to just get into the habit of visiting the same eateries, but recently I’ve been making an active effort to visit new places, not only so I can feel more confident eating out but also to make going out for food a bit more interesting, especially as I do actually enjoy visiting new places and trying new food. Going out for drinks is similar, the alcohol menu for cocktail bars has to be researched along the way or at the table before ordering. As I have both a potato and a gluten allergy, vodka is the alcohol that is particularly awkward for this and I generally have to ask the person behind the bar about the alcohols if the menu isn’t very detailed.

Going on mini-breaks away or holidays is also something that can appear quite daunting. Over the summer I went to Edinburgh and although I did a lot of research as to where I could eat before I got there, the first night did feel a little challenging when it came to actually deciding where was best for me to eat. However, once I’d realised how easy it was to talk to the servers in the restaurants, cafe’s and bars I found myself feeling a lot more at ease when it came to going out for food.

The idea of asking those working in a bar, restaurant or cafe about the ingredients in the food they serve used to scare me and still does sometimes put me on edge. I do know however that it’s much better to prioritise my health and ask as many questions as I need to, rather than risking eating a meal I’m not entirely sure is safe for me. As a young person though the pressures of socialising with new people or in new environments, such as in University, can result in risk being taken as a means of trying to fit in. I find it particularly awkward to have to run through my allergies with new people I meet every time, as although its nice that people generally find it interesting, it’s a very repetitive conversation for me that tends to put me under the spotlight…

This lack of confidence in young people relating to their allergies was noted by the Food Standards Agency who have launched a campaign entitled “easy to ASK”, which aims to empower young people to ask food businesses about the food and drinks they serve to ensure they make safe choices. This campaign and the survey taken by the FSA in partnership with AllergyUK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign, is also an important reminder to businesses to ask customers about any potential dietary requirements and to keep their allergen information easily accessible and up to date. This campaign’s importance has been particularly highlighted by the recent mass news coverage of allergens and the awful consequences that negligence in regards to allergens can have. Only 14% of those asked in the survey reported feeling extremely confident when asking for allergen information when dining out, and although over the years my confidence has grown, I admire those that responded to the survey with such confidence and appreciate the efforts of the Food Standards Agency to improve the confidence of young people suffering with allergies or intolerances as a whole.

It’s important to prioritise your health at all times anyway, but as someone with allergies it’s important to ensure you are never left feeling uneasy or in the dark about what you’re eating. If at any time you feel like the food you are going to eat isn’t completely safe it is always much better to ask, whether that be asking for an allergen menu as you walk into the restaurant or checking again with a member of staff before you eat your meal that your food is definitely safe for you and your allergy/s. Gaining my allergies at what appears to be a slightly surprising age to most people was a strange thing to adapt to, I’d lived a whole 14 years being able to eat whatever I wanted to and suddenly I found that I had to be extra careful about what I ingested. Going through school, college and now University with my allergies and taking a pack lunch with me wherever I go, I know that when I want to socialise and go out for food with friends or on a night out, it is always easy to ask those serving me about the ingredients in their products.

Why Is Raising Awareness of Allergies Important?

During the December of 2014 I bought myself a Christmas gingerbread whilst out with friends, all was good till I returned home and my Mum noticed my lips swelling and I reported that they felt as if they were tingling. My Mum took this as a challenge, trying to figure out which ingredient in the gingerbread was the attacker, until eventually she gave me some cinnamon on a teaspoon and it became my first allergy. From there on my relationship with “normal” food tumbled as I became more and more frequently ill after eating ingredients that used to be an everyday occurrence in my meals. Though I’m still being sent back and forth from one NHS department to another, my current allergies are:

  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Egg
  • Potato
  • Nuts
  • Maize
  • Tomato (which is actually more of an intolerance).

Trying to navigate such a restricted diet and still continue to live a life unaffected by these restrictions has been a struggle, especially as in the first couple of years a huge portion of my life was spent ill in bed. I almost had an accidental routine of 3 days in bed and 2 days in school, and as a 15 year old trying to maintain friendships, an education and my health that could be quite difficult. Especially as although I appreciate my own time, I tend to climb the walls when I lack human interaction for 3 days with someone that isn’t my Mum. When I’m feeling healthy and at my best I’m usually quite a lively and talkative person with those who know me well, but when ill I almost retract into my own shell and even if I have things I want to say, I just don’t have the energy the say to them. To the people close to me, specifically my Mum, this is a notable difference to how I am otherwise. If I’m honest it has left me feeling quite lonely, particularly in my first year of college (which was last year) when I was developing new friendships but due to my ongoing illness was again experiencing the 3 day in bed, 2 day in college routine. Thankfully this didn’t actually impact my ability to form friends, but it did leave me on those ill days feeling like it would and is if I was missing out.

For context as to how my appearance changes when I have an allergic reaction, here is what I generally look like on a healthy day:

The way in which my body reacts during an allergic reaction can differ dependant on the food, if I’ve somehow had potato I experience immediate sickness and will begin to feel my throat tighten, if I somehow intake gluten I experience extreme lethargy and swelling of the face and if egg somehow makes it into my diet I know very quickly when I get extreme stomach pain. However, regardless of the food I do experience a lot of similar symptoms such as: sickness, eczema (particularly on my hands and face), lip swelling, stomach pain etc. In fact in the picture above, you can just about see some eczema on my neck that I had for at least 1-2 months till it eventually disappeared and I then experienced another bout of eczema on the other side of my neck.

On my left hand there is an area around the bottom of my hand that is permanently discoloured in comparison to the rest of my hand, this is where eczema will first flare up if I am experiencing  a reaction. A lot of the time it almost acts as a warning, because once my eczema flares up on my left hand I know other symptoms are soon to follow. As the reaction continues eczema will then flare up on my right hand and then usually on my face too, often around my lips. The eczema appearing on my face is usually one of the most annoying traits to me, as although during the reaction it isn’t the worst, the fact I have to then deal with it once the reaction passes often really does bother me. Especially as it usually appears in the corners of my lips which can make it difficult to heal, due to the fact I can’t eat or talk without irritating it which often causes it to bleed.

Another reaction I can experience on my skin is hives. I’m lucky enough to have both a cat and a dog, both of which are hypoallergenic breeds, so of course I enjoy having a cuddle with both. However, cuddling either of them (usually when I’m already experiencing some illness, but not always) can bring me out in hives generally on my hands/arms/neck/face.

In the picture on the right you can also see the beginning of that pesky neck rash forming and the forming of rashes around my mouth.

Due to the fact I’m so prone to eczema, I used to regularly get eczema around my eye, particularly just under my eyebrow. Couple this with a reaction and the eczema around my eye tends to spread, usually I am able to contain it but a couple of years ago the eczema around my eye almost didn’t want to be contained. Around the beginning of December 2015 I had  the eczema I was frequently experiencing above my eye and attempted to follow my usual steps of getting rid of it, however when this eczema was coupled with multiple allergic reactions it just continued to spread around my eye. This became very painful and with it being the most sociable time of the year (the Christmas and New Year period) it felt like the worst time to have it and as if I was a walking disclaimer as to why my eye looked so strange. The New Year’s Eve of that year I mainly only saw the changing of the year because my Mum encouraged me to stay up, but personally I just felt too ill. Though I did generally enjoy the New Year atmosphere in the end. However, by New Years day we were in hospital due to the illness. As you can see in the picture on the left I had eczema, my eyes were swollen and it was beginning to become infected. Thankfully I don’t experience eye eczema much anymore, but when I do I’m very quick to ensure I’m rid of it so I don’t end up looking like this again. Particularly as it took a long time for my eye to heal properly, and once my eye did go back to looking how it normally does, I was left with quite a lot of bruising under my eye that took a long time to completely fade away. This whole experience knocked my self-confidence a lot, which wasn’t helped by the fact I was also attending school during this flare up.

My final exposition of myself is this full face picture, which isn’t necessarily the worst I’ve ever looked during a reaction but it definitely gives you an idea as to the physical symptoms I experience during a reaction, as well as the sickness, lethargy, stomach pains and just general illness you would expect to accompany a reaction. In this picture you can see the swelling of my face and lips, if you look close enough you can also probably tell that my eyes watered profusely during this reaction. Though they are not particularly obvious in this picture I had rashes on my face, especially around the mouth, and some bruising is evident due to the fact this reaction and therefore the swelling lasted for quite a few days. Although I wouldn’t say this is the worst I have ever looked, when looking at this photo I almost don’t recognise myself, potentially because it looks like I’ve been beaten up and I remember how I felt, but also you can see by my overall demeanour that I just felt down and wanted to go back to bed. Bizarrely my nose also seems to look different in comparison to the “healthy” pictures I showed earlier in this post, but maybe that’s because I’ve been looking at this photo for too long..

As well as giving an example of how allergic reactions can vary, I’m also hoping that this post will highlight why the One McPeake Challenge is important. Allergic reactions can impact people in different ways and I seem to think that unless you know someone personally with an allergic reaction, then generally you probably wouldn’t consider in much detail what dealing with an allergy or multiple allergies would be like. This can make it very easy, especially in the current diet culture we are experiencing, for those within the catering industry to take some allergies with a pinch of salt. This is something I have experienced many times, here are a few examples:

  • I recently attended a well-known restaurant that served a meal that was otherwise safe for me with pesto, due to the nuts in the pesto I asked for it to be removed. They then told me it would take longer to make due to my request (which doesn’t really make sense, because I was actually requesting less food), but when my meal did arrive it still contained pesto. I mentioned to the girl serving me that I had requested for the meal to not have the pesto due to my nut allergy, and in response she did a heavy sigh and said, “Can you not just scrape it the side?”.
  • I’ve also been to another well-known restaurant and explained my allergies so I could get the best advice regarding food, including my egg allergy, and was offered gluten-free bread with my meal. I was reassured multiple times that it was perfectly safe for me, but after eating my meal I soon realised something wasn’t safe and then found out the bread contained egg.
  •  I explained all of my allergens to the waitress in another restaurant and requested a meal that was otherwise safe apart from the potatoes (it was a beef stew type meal), so of course I requested for the potatoes to be removed. My meal was then served and as I was eating it I started to feel tingling in my lips and repeatedly asked the person I was eating with whether my lips looked as if they were starting to swell. They said they didn’t think so, so I started to think I was being paranoid until I looked at my next spoonful and noticed there was a piece of pasta on it that I definitely had not agreed to being in my meal. I then quickly realised that the chef had replaced the potato in my meal with pasta, the chef and waitress were both aware of my allergies and nobody thought to check with me whether they could add normal pasta into my meal. I then felt very ill for the rest of the night.

These are only three examples out of a sadly very large range of examples I have that expose the complete negligence and/or ignorance regarding my allergies by those who I was relying upon to make sure that the food I ate was safe.  Therefore, the One McPeake Challenge is incredibly important in raising awareness of the impact foods can have on someone with allergies. The challenge itself requests that you remove one of the main 14 allergens from your diet for the first two weeks in September in order to raise awareness of the struggles a person with an allergy experiences. To take part you simply need to make a small donation, by doing this we hope to raise money for the Anaphylaxis Campaign. Though of course donating isn’t exclusive to those taking part, if you don’t want to remove an allergen but still want to help the cause please do make a donation on our MyDonate page, linked here.

This blog post presents only some of my story and experiences with having allergies, but I’m very aware that this story will be different for others and that’s why it’s important that whilst this campaign is running we share our experiences. Even if its just about one visit to a restaurant or one aspect of your reaction you want to vent about, it’s important that we raise awareness of the impact having an allergy can have on your life and if by doing that we can potentially raise some money for the Anaphylaxis Campaign, then it seems like it a win-win to me!

If you would like to keep up with the campaign or just find out more about what Allergen Accreditation does, then you can find us across all social media platforms:

Instagram – @allergenawareuk
Facebook – JACS
Twitter – @JACS /@AllergenAwareUK

If after reading this post you would like to find more out about the campaign there is a post on my blog explaining the whole challenge, alternatively you could email jacs@allergenaccreditation.co.uk if you would like to get in contact or share your story. You could also share your story by contacting the twitter account above or my own personal account @SophieNixon17.  Thank you for reading this post.

One McPeake Challenge

In order to raise awareness of the daily struggles an individual experiences, Allergen Accreditation is about to launch a campaign that  Jacqui McPeake (the Free From Hero of 2018) successfully ran on a smaller scale within Manchester Metropolitan University when she was Head of Catering.

To participate in this challenge Allergen Accreditation requests that an individual removes one of the main 14 allergens from their diet during the first two weeks in September, by doing this we hope to encourage a broader understanding of the difficulties that a life with allergies presents. We particularly aim to improve the understanding of those working within the catering industry, as we are aware of  how a broader understanding of allergens within the catering industry can improve the experiences of those with an allergy, and potentially improve their confidence in regards to going out for food. In order to participate in this challenge we simply request that you donate via our MyDonate page, where all money raised will go to the Anaphylaxis Campaign which provides valuable support and information regarding serious allergies. We suggest a minimum donation of £5 for an individual entry  and £50 for a team entry, though anything more would be greatly appreciated.

In order to gain an insight into participants experiences during the 2 week challenge we encourage you to feedback your views and experiences via the email that will be provided at the bottom of this post. Please be assured your personal details will remain anonymous. If email isn’t your preference, we would also love it if you contacted us via our social media, such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook with your experiences using #OneMcPeakeChallenge. The team at Allergen Accreditation will then use the information to provide tweets, blogs and Instagram posts to raise allergen awareness across the industry and in social media channels.

Upon registering to participate in the challenge, there are a few activities we request you attempt during the 2 weeks in order to broaden both your and our understanding of the daily challenges experienced by those with an allergy:

  • Remove one of the key 14 allergens for a 2 week period.
  • Visit local supermarkets and smaller shops to purchase appropriate foods suitable for your chosen allergen. Feedback your experience to the email address provided or tweet your experience on Twitter using the #Onemcpeakechallenge
  • Dine out at least once and feedback your experience good/bad to the email address provided.
  • If you managed to order a takeaway, what was your experience?
  • Feedback any difficulties you experience e.g. taking a packed lunch to work, finding snacks to eat, eating with family members.
  • Feedback reactions of family, colleagues etc.
  • If working in the industry, feedback the response from your colleagues.
  • Feedback any learning from the challenge.
  • What did you learn from the experience if anything ?
  • Will you do anything differently as a result of #Onemcpeakechallenge ?

However, please remember that your own health is important and if you have an underlying health condition or if you begin to feel unwell during the 2 week challenge, you are advised to return immediately to your usual diet. If you are concerned please visit your GP.

I hope you consider participating in our challenge and would like to thank you in advance on behalf of Allergen Accreditation and the Anaphylaxis Campaign, it would also be incredibly helpful if you could aid us in promoting this challenge.

 

To contact us with your experiences during the challenge or any other enquires please email:

jacs@allergenaccreditation.co.uk

Alternatively, for enquiries alone you can also contact:

office@allergenaccreditation.co.uk