Navigating your allergy at University

Written by NTU alum and staff member, Fran Davison

It’s estimated that allergies affect 41 million people in the UK – with 2 million people living with a diagnosed food allergy. In light of Allergy Awareness Week, (24 April – 30 April), I want to share some of my own experiences and advice for coping with an allergy while at university.

I was first diagnosed with a nut allergy when I was very young. I was so young that I can’t remember what happened exactly, but I’m told it involved me, aged two, taking a bite out of an ice cream (with peanuts in) and going into anaphylaxis.

For those who aren’t sure – anaphylaxis is a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction. In simple terms, anaphylaxis occurs when your immune system overreacts to a substance. The immune system responds by sending out proteins from inside certain white blood cells to attack the trigger. These proteins cause the allergic reaction. The symptoms of anaphylaxis can include unconsciousness; low blood pressure; swelling/narrowing of the airways; breathing difficulty; abdominal pain and vomiting. Basically, all the things you definitely don’t want to have happen to you! Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that requires treatment, usually through a drug called epinephrine (otherwise known as an Epi-Pen).

While I’ve been very careful throughout my life to avoid nuts at all costs – from time-to-time, slip ups have happened. A hazelnut meringue at a shopping centre, a ‘picnic’ chocolate in a pick-n-mix, pistachio ice-cream (that I was told was vanilla!), a rogue peanut in a bowl of crackers. Needless to say, all of my reactions have been extremely scary, but luckily in all of these situations, I was with a family member who knew about my allergy and how to help. That’s why when I moved away from home to university, it took me some time to adapt to managing my allergy on my own.

Living in university accommodation can be such a fun time, but it can also hold challenges for an allergy sufferer, especially if you’re sharing a kitchen. I found the best thing to do is to be open and honest with your flatmates from the beginning. It’s wise not to assume that people already know about allergies and how severe they can be, so take the time to explain and answer any questions they have. It can feel a bit uncomfortable but the more information you give, the more likely they are to understand – which can go a long way in avoiding potential conflict further down the line. There are also practical ways you can look after yourself and mitigate cross-contamination risk I would recommend, like using your own washing-up sponge and tea towel, wiping down surfaces before cooking and keeping your own food or cooking utensils separate. I kept mine in my room. By doing these things, you can hopefully feel more at ease and in control.

For some people, alcohol and nights out are a big part of the university experience. Therefore, it’s important to recognise the differences in the way allergens and ingredients are labelled on drinks compared to food. Thankfully, I never had a reaction through alcohol, yet for the majority of my time at university I was unsure of which drinks were safe and which were not. For example, for a long time I had no idea that Frangelico contained hazelnut derivatives, and liqueurs like Nocello and Crème de Noix were made with walnuts, Amaretto and Galliano with almonds. My advice is to do some research before you’re in a pressured situation so that you’re not stuck making rushed decisions on the spot, or desperately trying to ask bar-staff over extremely loud music hoping they’ll understand. Personally, I found this recent article ‘How Allergens Hide in Alcohol’ really helpful in identifying which types of alcohol to avoid for different allergies.

Another issue to address is the peer-pressure that can often come with drinking alcohol at university. A worrying statistic says, “teenagers and young adults with food allergies are at the highest risk of fatal food-induced anaphylaxis” (Food Allergy Research & Education, 2023). This has been linked to the increase in risk-taking behaviour and social pressures prevalent within the age group. Particularly in the early days of university, it can be hard to set boundaries with people. For example, first-year university students will most likely be exposed to a range of drinking games that are often played before nights out. For example, ‘Ring of Fire’ which involves the loser being nominated to drink the ‘dirty pint’ that everyone has poured their drinks into. From my own experience, the combination of the peer pressure and the panic of wondering if anyone is drinking something that might have nuts in, can be intense. Not to mention the addition of the countdowns and group chanting! With time, I became more confident to not bow down to social influence and tell people no if I felt uncomfortable in a situation.

In data provided by Allergy UK, over half of people living with allergies in the UK regularly avoid social situations due to their allergy. In their study, they also found that over half of people felt they must play down their allergies due to fear of judgement. If you are living with an allergy, and you’re experiencing anxiety around it – I want you to know that you are not alone, and there are resources out there to help you.

I could go on all day about this topic – but I’ll leave you with some final tips.

  • Stay stocked up with your medication – make sure you register to a local GP and set up a repeat prescription for your allergy medication. Don’t forget to regularly check your medication expiry dates.
  • Speak up – I was scared for far too long to be upfront with people. Instead, I tended to keep quiet and tried to manage things by myself, which left me in awkward – but most importantly – dangerous situations. With time and experience, I’ve realised that telling someone I have a severe allergy is much less ‘embarrassing’ than having actually having a life-threatening reaction.
  • If you’re struggling with allergy-related anxiety – talk to someone and access resources to help you manage, don’t suffer alone. Check in with your GP to see what they recommend for you. Get support from NTU. Organisations such as Allergy UK have a helpline which may be useful. You could try daily coping strategies like deep breathing techniques or relaxation apps.

My ask to those who don’t suffer with allergies:

Put yourself in the person with an allergy’s shoes – be supportive of your friends with allergies. Stick up for them if you notice they’re being pressured to do something they aren’t comfortable with. Having empathy for people with allergies can make a world of difference to them.

For help, advice and resources whilst studying at NTU, take a look at the following for sources of support.

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