Ayah is allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, sesame and kiwi. She has completed a Masters’s degree, researching the genetic determinates of food allergy and currently works for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as an Allergen Risk Assessor. In her role, Ayah provides expert scientific advice in the area of Food Hypersensitivity and manages various FSA-funded projects under the Food Allergy and Intolerance Research Programme. Ayah has written about her experience at university in a personal capacity*.
Going to university in another city is a big step and even more so when you have food allergies. When I moved to Manchester, I was not only having to adjust to a new city and living with strangers but also learning how to manage my allergies in a new environment. For most people university is a time when eating habits change through shifts in routine and I was no exception. This newfound freedom and choice to eat as much junk food as I could possibly stuff in my mouth meant that allergy management became ever more important.
Luckily, my allergy nurse, who had seen me yearly for the past 10 or so had given me some tips on how to deal with this change. She reminded me to be extra careful when it came to alcohol, new foods or kissing strangers in clubs and to ensure the friends and people in my accommodation were aware of my allergies.
Alcohol can reduce our ability to make good decisions or to communicate effectively about our symptoms or allergy. Some research also suggests that alcohol may increase the severity of allergic reactions or reduce the amount of allergen (threshold dose) needed to trigger an allergic reaction. This research on alcohol is limited and more is needed, however, my nurse and doctors have always warned me to be extra vigilant in these situations.
To prepare for university I opted for self-catering accommodation to ensure I was in control of the food I ate. I contacted the accommodation service and informed them of my allergies. They offered to print out flyers to remind my flatmates of my allergies, but I didn’t feel this was needed at the time. I told my flatmates about my allergies when I arrived and made sure to have my own cutlery, plates and a separate shelf on the fridge for all my food, to reduce risk of cross-contamination. My flatmates were very accommodating, and I did not feel the need to purchase a mini-fridge for my food, although I’m aware of some people who have.
I also relocated GP practices and asked my new GP to transfer me to an adult allergy service. The team at the allergy clinic at Wythenshawe Hospital were amazing. I had regular checkups every year. My consultant offered me a trainer auto-injector so that I could practice and teach my friends and flatmates how to use one in an emergency.
With my limited budget, I purchased a bright orange bracelet with my name, my allergies and an emergency number printed on the back. In all honesty, orange did not go with my outfits and so I rarely wore my bracelet out. If you do go for this option, I would recommend going for a more neutral colour, unless neon orange is your thing!
In an effort to make friends, I found myself at restaurants serving foods I had never even heard of. In all restaurants, but especially in these, I was extra cautious to ask and triple-check for allergens in food. I always trusted my gut and if I felt that the restaurants or waiters did not understand my requests, I would ask to speak to a manager or simply not eat and just order a drink instead. Soon enough, the friends I made became aware of my allergies and we started to go to places that felt safer. I remember for my 20th birthday, my housemates got me a nut-free cake which I really appreciated.
Overall, I enjoyed my time at university, and although I did have (very few) allergic reactions, these were never severe because I had a good management system in place. All I can say is, ensure all your medication is in date and you carry your auto-injectors everywhere, especially in places where you may be under the influence i.e clubs, house parties. I believe communication is key and that having allergies is nothing to be ashamed of or hide. It’s always better to be safe, so just ensure that your friends, flatmates, accommodation, and university department are well-informed about your allergies and that you have an allergy management plan that suits your lifestyle at university.
I wish you an allergy-safe, successful and happy university experience.
You can hear more from Ayah on her podcast, “Allergies with Ayah” where she discusses the science of food allergy and her lived experience.
*Please note, Ayah’s story details her personal experience and opinions and the information above has not been reviewed by an allergy clinician.