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How NOT to write: Allergies

Following the Peter Rabbit movie’s allergy bullying scene, allergies have been a hot conversation topic. While some people can’t fully grasp the terrifying nature of this scene, this just exposes a deeper issue. Like many other health issues and disabilities, there isn’t enough understanding of food allergies, despite the 21 million people in the UK alone who suffer from them.

As a writer, I know how difficult it can be to research and represent illnesses in a credible way and as a sufferer of several allergy-related conditions, I know how frustrating it can be when people just don’t understand. Therefore, I thought I’d share everything I know about allergies, along with a few of my pet peeves.


The Facts

Like many other chronic conditions, allergies have varying severity. In my case, if I’m even in the same room as a nut, I’m likely to have some kind of a skin reaction. Other people can eat things that say “may contain traces of nuts” without much worry, but for me, this isn’t the case.

Anaphylaxis is a condition in which contact with the allergen can cause anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening reaction. This is a severe form of allergy, but again there are varying degrees. Some people experience air-borne reactions, whereas others only experience this after ingestion. Symptoms can include vomiting, swelling, wheezing, loss of consciousness and (my personal favourite) an impending sense of doom. The solution is an adrenaline auto-injection, but they don’t always work, and an ambulance must also be called. For less severe skin reactions, an antihistamine works.

Intolerance is less severe, as often it takes a larger amount of the allergen to trigger this, and also it is unlikely to be life-threatening. While allergies are immune system based, intolerances usually trigger responses from the digestive system or other areas due to the lack of a particular enzyme required to digest it. I have friends who are lactose intolerant but can eat most dairy-based products without consequence, save ice cream and milkshakes.

Oral allergy syndrome or oral sensitivity syndrome is related to hay fever, in that the reaction is to the pollen of a specific plant. For example, I have oral sensitivities to cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots. The symptoms include rashes and swelling, but often don’t progress past the mouth. Treatment isn’t always needed, but antihistamines work well.


The Reality of Severe Anaphylaxis

A lot of people assume that allergies are just a case of not eating whatever you’re allergic to. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Just because something doesn’t contain the actual allergen doesn’t mean that it’s safe – it might have a “may contain” warning, due to the preparation methods. While, like I said, some people take that risk, some people are so severely allergic that this could mean life and death. Most bakeries have a blanket “may contain” warning and so I avoid all of them.

Restaurants are another minefield. Even if you go into a restaurant and ask for nut free food, the majority of restaurants will say something along the lines of “we’ll do our best, but we can’t guarantee.” Again, it’s down to the individual to decide. Personally, I only visit two fast food restaurants who serve nothing with any nuts in, and one branch of a pizza restaurant that we go to regularly. Many places have allergen folders on site, which change between visits and so need to be checked every time.

Cosmetics, particularly organic cosmetics, often use oils derived from allergens, which obviously can cause a reaction.

The regulations regarding alcohol are different to everything else, as companies are not required to list allergens if they were only included in the brewing process, as this supposedly removes any danger. However, if you’re as severely allergic as I am, it’s not worth the risk, and so I don’t drink.

Flying is pretty much a no go. While some companies will tell passengers not to open peanuts on the plane, they are not obliged to enforce this and people can be surprisingly militant about their right to eat them, regardless of everyone else’s health. Because of the recycled air and enclosed space, this can lead to reactions miles above the ground. Again, air companies usually provide a disclaimer, taking no responsibility for this.


Etiquette

When it comes to jokes, ask yourself one question: Are we laughing with them, or at their expense? As someone with a severe allergy, I tend to make a lot of jokes about my allergy, often focusing on my own death. In fact, I play a game in every supermarket to see who can find the nuttiest product. I’m fine with those kinds of jokes. It’s when jokes centre around stereotyping the kinds of people who have allergies, painting them as oversensitive or encouraging people to deliberately cause a reaction that I have a problem.

Also, think about your audience. While it’s good for any allergy-related content to inform, bare in mind that with some groups, for example children, they will need more explanation to fully understand. That’s one of the major problems I have with the Peter Rabbit film; children who haven’t even heard of allergies before will see them first in a situation where they’re used as a weapon. Causing the reaction is seen as a triumph for the main character, encouraging children to do so in play, not understanding the risks. While some people would argue that it’s the same as showing guns, there’s one key difference: Children don’t have free access to guns. Peanuts, however, are easy to come by. And when not all children have parents who will explain the implications of this scene, the film had a responsibility to fully condone it.

Most importantly, do your research. Even people with allergies have to look things up occasionally and often rely on a community base of knowledge to make their own judgements. If you’re not an allergy sufferer personally, ask someone who is.


If you have any questions about anything allergy related, feel free to ask! I’m happy to do my best to respond.

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