“I have lived with a nut allergy, along with various other allergies, for as long as I can remember (well, nearly). When I was young (I am now 39) I remember cracking nuts with my dad at Christmas time and passing them round the family. However, one day I ate some curry and remember my mouth feeling a bit funny. At a later stage I had some peanuts and remember my mouth swelling up and my skin starting to itch and go red and blotchy. After that I was allergy tested and nuts came up positive. Despite this I have not let it get in my way of living my life.
Obviously I have had to be careful what I eat and steer clear from foods that contain nuts. When I travelled to various countries in my 20’s I had a necklace containing details of my allergy as in Thailand and Indonesia nuts were a staple part of many dishes. However, by asking the right questions and homing in on dishes that were nut free I didn’t encounter any problems. Similarly when going out to a restaurant now I simply ask before I chose and avoid the obvious, steering more towards tomato based dishes (especially where curries are concerned) as they tend not to contain nuts. A lot of restaurants, if you ask, will remove the nuts from a dish if it’s possible and I am never to shy to ask for a dish to be taken back if it arrives garnished with nuts. And to be fair, I have never had a restaurant take offence of this request once I have explained why I am asking. Certain cakes and biscuits are off limits too but there are plenty of delicious alternatives that aren’t!
The main concern of my 30’s has been whether or not either of my children will have the same allergy as me and I plan to get them tested so that I know either way. At the moment our house is nut free as are the schools they go to, which seems common place now much to my relief.
One great thing is that, in recent years, awareness of products containing nuts has become much more prevalent which makes things safer all round, especially for children who can’t apply adult logic when they are offered a biscuit or some chocolate. However, I always check labels on foods that I am unsure of, especially the likes of ready meals, sauces, cereals and biscuits. It has just become habit.
Staying vigilant is a must as several times I have failed to do so and have suffered the consequences. I now carry my epipen everywhere with me. My advice? Be sensible, get clued up about the foods to avoid, read packaging labels if you are unsure, avoid them if you are still unsure, then live your life.”
In my work I’m fortunate to travel. Recent trips have included Dubai, Shanghai and Sao Paulo. On arrival at my destination I always ask if someone could write out, in local language, a written paragraph that I can carry in my wallet that specifies as clearly and simply as possible that I am allergic to nuts and that I can eat no food that contains nuts or has been cooked in nut oil.
Although I feel slightly embarrassed by requesting this it has always been greeted with warmth and understanding. This strategy has worked from restaurants to street vendors. It can cause amusement from colleagues and friends but it works.
On UK soil I don’t have the need for such a strategy. We all speak the same language. How can my direct verbal communication get lost? For example I know it’s always a risk to try a new place especially if it is eastern food. Recently I was recommended a delicious curry house in east London. They spoke English and were very accommodating and understood the magnitude of my allergy. I have now eaten there three times but always with caution. The least of my worries should be restaurant/cafe I have eaten in during my last ten years in North London and know me well…
Here’s what happened. Firstly I ordered a special from the board. First misjudgement. It was a tuna kebab with rice and I was in an ‘exotic’ mood. The dish did not say if it contained nuts or not as it wasn’t specified on the board. Subsequently, and following discussions with the Anaphylaxis Campaign, special dishes put an allergy sufferer at higher risk as ingredients are often not listed on special boards. Secondly, and crucially, at that point I did not ask if the dish had nuts in it when I ordered it. If it had I would not have ordered it.
When the dish was presented it looked great. However, accompanying the dish (on the plate), was a sauce. My first immediate instinct was ‘this could be nuts.’ So without hesitation I got up and approached the chef and waitress behind the counter. I asked the chef if the dish had nuts in it. He didn’t reply but the waitress did and said it didn’t contain nuts. That it was a mix of oil and balsamic vinegar. I sat back down and picked up the sauce, sniffed it and ran a fork through it. The consistency felt different. Here I made my third crucial error. I did not trust my instincts. After a long flight back from Sao Paulo, being in an ‘exotic’ mood and feeling very hungry I applied a tiny dab to my tuna and rice and ate it.
Immediately my lips swelled, my throat was closing up and my heart was racing. I got up with the sauce and asked another waitress if this had nuts in. ‘Yes its peanut satay!’ Subsequently an ambulance arrived, I was given steroids, I was put on a nebuliser and I spent 7 hours in A&E under observation. If only I had used my overseas strategy in the UK! Or more to the point if only I had trusted my instincts.
Well I’m here to share this with you thanks to quick responses from the NHS. I did not have my Epipen with me and as the ambulance arrived within a couple of minutes I was treated without the need for adrenalin.
Following up on this has been interesting. It’s an education process with both the restaurant and the local council authority. The Anaphylaxis campaign and Allergy Action have been brilliant. The restaurant have admitted full responsibility and have undertaken training for all the staff and relabelled all dishes and the council, following visits to the premises, and discussions with the health inspectors are taking allergy sufferers seriously.
My 3 top tips are: be clear and simple and communicate that you have an allergy; try new things, but with added caution; and always trust your instincts.”