Awareness for Commonly Misused Allergy Phrases

Summer is right around the corner, and everyone who loves camping, hiking, or enjoying a refreshing beverage on a patio with friends should be excited. Since I love camping, let’s set the scene on a Friday afternoon in the grocery store gathering some food before some friends and I head up to a favourite campsite for a weekend of s’mores, fishing, swimming, and canoeing. I have a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, and as I walk by the pastry section in the grocery store, my friend says “Oh, we shouldn’t get those donuts, that’ll kill you. Let’s get chips for snack instead”. This is a common scenario that I have encountered on a regular basis so let’s talk about it.

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I also love patio season, so here’s another scenario. Let’s say some friends and I are enjoying the sun on a patio, looking at the drink menu. I also have an allergy to raw pineapple, which has been difficult for me because I grew into it. I had been able to enjoy this, my favourite fruit, up until a few months ago when I discovered through a food allergy test, that I had developed a life-threatening allergy. As we’re looking at the drink menu, one of my friends says aloud, “Oh, look at the cocktail selection. You can’t have that one, or that one, or that one, or even that one. Man, you can’t have anything!”

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These two situations can happen all too often to an adult with allergies, and to an outsider, these phrases may appear harmless. But let’s say you recently experienced an anaphylactic allergic reaction where you had to use your epinephrine auto-injector, called 9-1-1, struggled to breath, and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. If someone refers to one of your allergens by saying “that will kill you”, they may think they are making a harmless statement. If you’re like me, however, and have suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction where you may have thought your situation was life-threatening, hearing something say “that’ll kill you” may bring about a strong emotional response. Like me, you may remember the fear you had when you weren’t able to breathe, or the relief you felt when the fire fighters or paramedics rushed into your house to save you, or the comfort you felt when you came home from the hospital. It is important for those with – and especially without – a life-threatening allergy to be cognizant of the wording they use when describing someone’s allergen.

The same goes for the phrase, “oh, you can’t have that”. This may seem even more benign, but to an individual with an allergy who is with a group of friends enjoying a food that they cannot enjoy, they may feel ostracized or left out. As someone who developed allergies as an adult who had previously enjoyed foods that I cannot have anymore, I often feel sad to hear others comment on my shortcomings in this way. Although I do appreciate someone trying to look out for me, there’s another way to go about it.  A way that doesn’t single me out or make me feel uncomfortable.

If you are an adult with allergies, you may have experienced these scenarios before. You may not have noticed that these phrases were said, or you might have experienced a strong emotional response, bringing you back to a severe reaction. It’s important to be able to balance your appreciation for their concern and your annoyance at their possible ignorance to the gravity of what they’re saying. A possible response is, “thanks for bringing it up, but please don’t use that wording.” Be honest with your friends and let them know how you really feel. They likely didn’t even know their words had such an impact. Slowly, let’s all change the landscape of misused allergy phrases.

– Fraser K.

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