Category Archives: Allergies and Attitude

Magic words to get anyone to take your allergies seriously

In relation to my peanut and tree nut allergy

I am a 27-year-old adult with life threatening allergies and I carry my epinephrine auto-injector everywhere I go. When I’m out with friends or family at restaurants it is very important that I communicate the severity of my allergies to servers and to the chef(s) or management. It is more and more common that restaurants and pubs ask about food allergies before patrons need to mention them, which is accommodating and proactive. Still, it is vital to impress upon the wait staff the severity of the allergies, so the chef can comment on whether or not various meals or parts of the kitchen are allergen friendly. As well, it is not only when I am out on the town when I find the need to mention the seriousness of my allergies; it can also be when I am at a friend’s house for dinner, or even at my own house with my family.

It was not easy learning how to broach the subject of my allergies. I recall visiting a friend who had put out a vegetable platter to which I had to politely refuse. She asked why, and I explained my allergy. Following up, she asked what happens when I eat raw fruits and vegetables, to which I said “I die”. The whole room fell silent, and I realized that everyone either thought I was being over dramatic or that my allergy was so severe that I couldn’t even be in the same area code as an allergen. I then explained that my body may go into what is called “anaphylactic shock”, and helped them understand the severity of my allergy better. This was when I learned that there is a fine line between over-dramatizing allergies and downplaying them. At a restaurant or a friend’s house it is important not to scare people with the thought of a life-threatening allergy, but it could even be less effective to undercut their severity.

I have learned that there are two or three phrases, which I commonly use now, that portray the quality of my allergies without creating a panicked environment: “life-threatening”, “anaphylactic”, and “serious” allergies.

Surprisingly, another method that has worked effectively to communicate the danger of my allergies is simply having my auto-injector visible on the table. It is nearly a habit of mine that when I sit down at a desk or at a restaurant table, I empty my pockets of my wallet, cell phone, keys, and auto-injector. I do this for comfort and to avoid losing one of these valuable items in the crack of a seat or onto the floor. One time at a restaurant a server noticed this ritual, and immediately asked me what I was allergic to. They seemed concerned to obtain accurate information too. This method worked unusually well, but personally I don’t like being the centre of attention, so I have stopped doing this as often.

In relation to my other allergies

I have found different experiences with my common allergies compared to my uncommon allergies. I have a severe form of what’s called “Oral Allergy Syndrome”, where my body confuses fruits and vegetables with tree pollen. Many people have an allergy to one or two fruits or vegetables and when they eat these, they experience a mild throat irritation or scratching. I have a severe form of oral allergy syndrome and when my mouth and throat are exposed to any raw fruit and any raw vegetables, there is profound swelling which can lead to airway compromise. Peanut, tree nut, gluten, and milk allergies are fairly well publicized in the media, and I find restaurants usually understand that these are serious. Raw fruits and vegetables on the other hand are less commonly life-threatening allergies, so it always comes as a surprise to my server. I usually avoid fruit and vegetables in a restaurant because servers invariably mention, “How cooked do they have to be.” Since this is so often subjectively interpreted, I don’t risk it. It is not always known whether or not they understand the severity of these more uncommon allergies. I’m sure this is not limited to my allergies, but other adults with other less common allergies as well. It is important to approach these allergens as you would any common allergens when communicating them to others and understand that there may be some surprise and discussion about these allergens.

Overall, a useful method to ensure the severity of an allergen is communicated effectively, I remember to use a calm demeanor, language such as “serious” or “life-threatening”, and avoid dramatizing or underplaying an allergy.

– Fraser K.

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Why Aren’t People More Allergy Aware?

Help me, Help you.

It’s important to take a step back from our daily lives and gain some perspective. Whether it’s to gain a new respect for your surroundings, or a better understanding of someone else’s life choices, it makes us all a better, well-rounded society that appreciates the differences we all possess.

I’m well aware that the severity of food allergies is not something most people deal with on a daily basis. The reality that a trace amount of food or sheer inhalation can affect someone so physically is a reality many live with, but not all. Over 2.5 million Canadians self-report having at least one food allergy. Yet, there sometimes seems to be an overwhelming lack of allergy awareness or compassion in society today. I usually try to brush this off, with fleeting thoughts circling the idea of “you don’t live with it every day, so of course you don’t know”; but the more I am exposed to people who aren’t aware of allergies, the more I realize it’s not necessarily that they are unaware. It may be that they are simply misinformed on the subject.

I truly believe the road to knowledge is paved with curiosity and an open mind. In order to help people who aren’t allergy aware better understand our food allergies, we need to squash three common misconceptions surrounding them. I summarize these below.

  1. Cross-contamin… what?
  2. In my opinion, the biggest misconception hindering allergy awareness is the use of the term cross contamination. The main point being:

    Cross-contamination is when “a small amount of a food allergen gets into another food accidentally, or when it is present in saliva, on a surface or on an object.”

    For example, when a knife is used to cut an egg and is only wiped off, rather than cleaned with soap, the use of this knife on something else could cause a reaction to someone with an egg allergy. Personally, cross-contamination is the scariest aspect of my food allergy. It pulls me into the depths of anxiety and has me second-guessing everything on my fork.

    Someone else’s kitchen can be a scary place. I rarely eat food when I don’t know how or where it’s prepared. If someone is prepping food for me, I urge them to ensure no cross-contamination happens from using the same utensils or bowls. I do my best to express the dangers of foods touching other foods but one thing that is completely out my control is the cross-contamination of utensils and objects around me. Doorknobs, handrails, etc. anything you touch I may also touch; and that is something I don’t think many people are aware of. My suggestion is a simple one: just be aware of your surroundings. Whether you’re in public, at a dinner party, or at a friend’s house; be aware of what you’ve eaten and what you’re touching. If you’re not sure, the safe bet is to wash your hands or even your mouth. Trust me, your food allergy friends will thank you! Plus it‘s an overall healthy and good hygiene practice.

    1. False news about allergies:

    I always tell anyone prepping my food about my allergies in great detail, whether it be in someone’s home or at a restaurant. I stress the severity of them and ensure I talk to those in charge. It’s these steps that help me feel safe when dining out. I think when it comes to the misconception or lack of awareness with food allergies, it is people abusing the word allergen. I can’t express the importance of telling others about your food allergy. However, disliking a food, hating a certain taste, or not wanting a certain food on your plate does not qualify as an allergy. By creating a misconception about food allergies, preparations, or brushing off the severity of it causes a miscommunication and could lead to a potentially fatal mistake for those who actually have a food allergy. I understand not liking food (I hate cauliflower) but calling it an allergen isn’t fair to your friend who deals with a food allergy every day. You can ask for substitutes, exclude things, or choose not to get a dish, just please don’t mislead people about your reasons why.

    1. This week in the movies…

    The last reason I think there isn’t more allergy awareness, is the portrayal of food allergies in movies and in pop culture. It often shows sensationalized medical measures like swelling up like a blowfish, “funny” hives, awkward situations, or misrepresentation of administering an auto-injector, it’s hard for those not living with a food allergy to spot a reaction in real life. The truth is, allergic reactions come in many forms and being able to identify and react to those symptoms is important.  An allergic reaction can affect several areas of the body and can present itself in many forms(3). Helping those around us understand how to identify and treat an allergic reaction helps everyone gain some perspective and respect for the severity of food allergies. If you’re unsure, it’s simple- just ask. Ask your friend or family member to explain their signs and symptoms. Come up with a plan of action, and make sure you know where there auto-injector is. Everyone likes the good-guy-hero in the movies. If you train hard and learn the signs, symptoms, and emergency protocol, that could be you!

-Arianne K

Learning to Accept my Allergies as an Adult

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop with my parents, enjoying a peach juice and a sprinkle donut. Or an iced tea and a bagel. Or my personal favourite: a milk and an oat cake. Whatever the occasion, our trips always involved a delicious, warm, baked good– one made with wheat, of course.

Whenever I had an important decision to make, my parents would, and still do, take me out for coffee. From applying for University, accepting my first job offer, and now planning my wedding, all of my most meaningful life decisions have been made over a cup of coffee and a treat.  But all that got a little more complicated recently.

I was diagnosed with a severe wheat allergy at the age of 30 after an anaphylactic reaction sent me to the hospital during a wintry run. After living with this allergy for three years, and having a second allergic reaction just a few weeks ago, I have been forced to redefine my identity and my relationship with food. What does it mean when I can’t eat the same food as my family and friends around the dinner table? How does it feel when I have to refuse a piece of cake at a birthday party or a treat at work for the hundredth time?

To be honest, it’s hard and I am still learning to accept that this allergy is something I will have for the rest of my life. Adjusting to a severe allergy as an adult isn’t easy. After my first reaction three years ago, I thought maybe it was just a fluke, despite my allergy tests showing a strong reaction to wheat. After my second reaction just a few weeks ago, a result of being served a contaminated dish while eating out, my allergy is literally all I think about.

I don’t often mention the ways that having an allergy has changed my life, beyond just having to say no to foods containing wheat. It’s changed the way I am able to enjoy food with my family at home, out in social settings with my friends, and most of all, the way we cook at home. To be honest, I can’t remember the last family function we had where I was able to just eat the same thing as everyone else. Coming from a large, traditional Italian family, most of our staples like pasta, pizza, paninis and most desserts are foods that I’ve either had to modify, or just stop eating. Wheat-free pasta is fairly simple to find, but a wheat-free cannoli is something I’ve yet to enjoy.

Recently, I attended my sister’s wedding and her gorgeous, three-tier banana chocolate chip wedding cake with fondant icing (my favourite) was completely off-limits for me, and to be honest, it made me a little sad. Not to mention the cheese tortellini with mushroom cream sauce and all the appetizers. Her venue was incredibly accommodating and made me a completely wheat-free meal, that was delicious by the way, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a bit left out or disappointed that I couldn’t enjoy everything that was on her beautifully curated menu.

With my own wedding coming up, it makes me kind of sad to think that I will have to have a “special meal” different from what my guests are eating. While I know that serving the Italian staples are a must, I just hope that whichever venue we choose will do their best to create similar dishes for me that don’t make me feel left out of my own big day. More on wedding planning with an allergy coming up in my next blog!

I know that accepting my allergy, and making safe food choices, even if that means feeling left out sometimes, is something that I have to accept. I also know that many restaurants and bakeries are targeted towards wheat-free living and even offer full menus that are completely wheat-free. Luckily, I live in Toronto where places like this are never too far. These days, our weekend trips to Tim Horton’s have been replaced by a stop at our favourite gluten-free bakery around the corner from our condo. While they don’t serve old-fashioned glazed donuts, they do make a mean lemon poppy seed muffin.

-Jenna

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Going out with New Friends

One of the best parts of going to school is that you will have the opportunity to make lots of new friends. However, with any situation of making new friends, breaking the ice about your allergies can be difficult. Below are my top 3 tips to how to best manage going out with new friends while being safe with your allergies.

  1. Tell them in advance

It is always a lot easier for both yourself and your friends to talk about your food allergies in advance of going out. It can be a fun fact you bring up about yourself when meeting people for the first time. I always find it easiest to introduce when I’m going out to eat with people. Usually if they ask what I want I’ll say, “Anything without nuts because I’m allergic to them!” I try to keep it casual and not make a big deal about it because I don’t want to make anybody afraid to eat with me.

  1. Come up with activities that don’t involve food

It’s always a good plan to have some ideas of activities to do with your friends when you go out that doesn’t involve food. Look up different things to do in the new city or town. For most people, the city will probably be quite new to them so exploring the place you will be living for the next little while is always a fun idea!

  1. Find some places that are safe for you to eat

A lot of the time when going out, people will default to food-related activities. Make sure you have restaurant options that you know are safe for you to eat at. That way when you say that you have an allergy you can offer a list of choices for your new friends to choose from. This helps makes accommodating your allergy easier for others and ensures you will be comfortable when eating out as well.

Making new friends can be difficult – especially when you have a food allergy. It is always best to tell them when you first meet them so everybody is well aware and can ensure that your allergies are accommodated for when you go out! It is also a good idea to let people know where your auto-injector is and how to use it in case of an emergency! If you have any other tips when going out with new friends, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

– Lindsay S.

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Eating in Residence

During the first year in university or college, a lot of people will decide to live in residence. This is a great way to make friends and really get integrated and feel at home on your campus. When living in residence with food allergies, there comes a set of risks involved as you are living with lots of new people who are likely not used to living with someone with food allergies. Here are my top 3 tips for how you can eat and live safely in residence with food allergies.

  1. Let your residence supervisor know

This is something you should try to do in advance or on your first day of moving into residence. Your residence supervisor is usually an upper year student who lives on your floor and is responsible for the well-being of all of the students. They will typically run a meeting on your first day for everyone on the floor to introduce themselves and get to know each other. I spoke with my supervisor in advance of this meeting and she was able to make an announcement that there was somebody with an allergy to nuts on the floor and to try and keep the floor as nut-free as possible. I found this really helpful so that I didn’t have to go around telling people individually and I knew that if I was ever in trouble my supervisor would be aware of my food allergy and be able to help.

  1. Keep food in your room

A great way to eat safely when in residence is to keep your own stash of food in your room. Lots of people will bring in a mini fridge so that you can keep perishable items stocked up and then have a bin or two for dry goods. I usually kept all of my breakfast supplies on hand so that I wouldn’t have to rush to a cafeteria before going to class. I also had snacks on hand so that if I was in my room studying or hanging out with friends, I would have something to eat. This also guarantees that you always have food around that you know is safe for you to eat.

  1. Be careful of the common room

A lot of residences will have common rooms where there are typically basic kitchen appliances like a toaster, microwave, coffee pot, sink, etc. Since you can never guarantee what others have made in the common room, it is always a good idea to be very careful when going in there. I usually went in and did a quick scan of what was on the counter and in the sink before bringing any of my food in to cook. Since my floor had been advised of my food allergies, it was very rare that there were any products or dirty dishes with my allergen present. However, there is always a risk involved with using a common space. I always used my own cutlery and dishes and washed everything carefully with soap.

Living in residence is such a fun experience that I would highly recommend it to everyone. If you have any other tips when eating in residence, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

– Lindsay S.

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Eating on Campus

Regardless of whether you are living on campus or off campus while away at university or college, a lot of your time will be spent on campus. Whether its picking up a snack between classes or grabbing dinner with friends, it is important to know where you are safe to eat on campus.

  1. Navigate the cafeterias

Something to spend your first couple of weeks doing is to get to know what your different food options are on campus. Most schools will have a few main cafeterias along with maybe a restaurant, snack areas or chain food suppliers. Spend some of your time getting to know where your food options are and what each of them serve. This will help you to determine where you can eat safely and what places have the types of food you like.

  1. Talk to the staff

The hospitality staff at your school will be the best people to help you eat safely on campus. They are the ones who know all about how food allergens are managed on campus and how you can best go about eating safely. Talk to the people who actually work in the cafeterias – usually the chefs and food preparation staff will have no problem talking to you and discussing what foods are safe for you to eat. If ingredients are not posted, the staff should be able to show you ingredient lists so you can know exactly what you are eating.

  1. Be adventurous

I found that growing up with food allergies led to me being a very plain eater. I rarely tried foods that were outside of my comfort zone as I had been so used to eating a restricted diet. When going away to school, I decided it was a good time to try some new foods – as long as I knew they were safe. After speaking to the hospitality staff and chefs at the cafeterias, I found that there were lots of new things that I could try that they could ensure me were allergen safe. This was a great way to try new foods in a safe environment. Just always make sure you have talked to staff, double checked ingredients, have an auto-injector nearby (just in case), and have informed those eating with you that you are trying something new.

Eating on campus will become a staple while you are away at school so it is important to know your options and know how to eat safely! If you have any other tips when eating on campus, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: First Week of School

You’ve made it! The decision has been made, your bags have been packed and now it is your first week of school! The first week of school is usually an orientation week where you get to take part in lots of fun activities and get familiar with the layout of campus. Here are my top 3 tips for getting through your first week of school with your food allergies!

  1. Talk with your roommate(s) and your floor mates

In your first week, it is important to try and make those who you will be living with aware of your food allergies. If you have a roommate and haven’t communicated with them beforehand it is important to let them know about your allergies and work out what you are comfortable with in terms of managing your allergies in your room and common areas. It is also a good idea to talk to other people who live on your floor as well so they are aware and cognizant of your allergies.

  1. Go to the grocery store

Your first week can be overwhelming and very busy. Having limitations on what you can eat and not being familiar with the cafeterias and food options on campus means it is always a good idea to have your own food and snacks on hand. Make a quick trip to a nearby grocery store during your first week so that you always have safe foods on hand and you won’t get hungry!

  1. Get involved

Usually classes haven’t started during your first week and it is just a time to have fun and meet new people. There are also usually lots of club fairs and promotions of different activities for new students. Take this time to get to know what kind of ways you can get involved on campus whether it’s through sports, clubs, activist groups, etc. There might even be opportunities to work with hospitality services or start your own club – like one for students with food allergies!

Hopefully some of these tips will help you get through your first week of school safely and with lots of fun! If you have any other tips for the first week of school with a food allergy, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

– Lindsay S.