'When Joe was just a year old, we had to call an ambulance when a relative kissed him after eating an egg'
As more of us suffer from allergies, we talk to two people for whom avoiding food which could trigger an attack is part of everyday life
Allergies are an increasing problem today - and a growing burden on our health service. People can be allergic to just about anything: they suffer itchy eyes from hay fever to sneezing from pet allergy. Many have asthma attacks triggered by dust, or mould, while others have adverse reactions to everything from milk to vegetables, or discover they develop a rash brought on by some detergents, or fabric conditioners.
More than 21 million people across the UK suffer from some kind of allergic reaction, or intolerance. At the extreme end of the allergy spectrum are people who suffer from anaphylaxis - an acute, often life-threatening, reaction that requires immediate medical intervention.
Foods, such as peanuts or shellfish, insect stings and some drugs are the most common triggers for an anaphylactic reaction.
Those most at risk can find their airway closing and blood pressure plunging, making it nearly impossible to breathe.
This reaction can take just seconds, so sufferers carry automatic adrenaline injectors - to deliver emergency treatment to relieve symptoms as quickly as the allergic reaction takes hold.
According to the charity Allergy UK, factors such as the environment, our genes, the way foods are processed and the detergents we use are making more of us allergic, or intolerant, to everyday things.
Kerry McKittrick talks to two local people, who are severely affected by food allergies, about what it's like to live with this threat hanging over their heads.
Lesley Burnside is a statistical programmer and lives in Carrickfergus with her husband, Stuart, and their children, Joe (5), Daniel (2) and Sam (9 months ). She says:
My son Joe is at risk of anaphylaxis from eggs, peanuts and nuts, including peas, beans and pulses. We discovered the allergy when he was just a baby and I had made a casserole with lentils in it.
The spoon touched Joe's lip and he started being sick - he didn't even ingest any of it.
Joe was referred to the allergy clinic when he was four months old, as he suffered with eczema and they thought he was likely to have allergies.
The waiting list meant that they couldn't see him until he was 10 months old and, during that time, we had to wean him. It was a very unsure time, as we didn't know what foods he could and couldn't have. He underwent a skin-prick test, which determined his food allergies, and he is reviewed by the clinic each year.
Looking back, I would do a lot of things differently. I was advised to stop breastfeeding him at four months, because of his eczema, and now I think he would have had more benefits and his immune system might have been stronger if I had kept going.
I think, if we had given him small amounts of cow's milk at the beginning, he might have built up a tolerance. We're trying to do that now.
It's been difficult to come to terms with the severity of Joe's allergies. When he was just over a year old, we had to call an ambulance because a family member kissed him on the cheek after eating an egg.
We didn't have adrenaline auto-injectors for him at the time and, after dosing him with antihistamines, the doctor advised that he should go to hospital.
We've since been given the auto-injectors. Thankfully, we haven't had to use them on him yet, but the whole thing has changed our lives. We don't go out to restaurants to eat, because of the worry of what could be in the food and how it's been prepared.
I don't think a lot of establishments appreciate how bad these allergies can be - people tend to think that a food intolerance and food allergy is the same thing.
Cooking at home is much easier, because we keep eggs and peanuts and everything else out, so we know what goes in our food. Children's birthday parties are a nightmare, particularly when Joe was a toddler, as I used to have to follow him round and check everything he was putting in his mouth. Now that he's a little older, he's got a better understanding of his allergy.
I'm hopeful for the future. Until this time last year, Joe was deemed at risk of anaphylaxis from dairy products, too, but we've been on a programme to introduce it.
We started with tiny amounts on a daily basis, but this summer he was able to have his first ice-cream. That's made a big difference, as dairy products are everywhere.
It's really helped with my anxiety levels, too. I'm now hopeful that we might be able to do the same thing with eggs.
Sending Joe off to school is nerve-wracking, but I met with his teacher and nurse before he started, to make sure the lines of communication were open. If they're worried about giving him anything, I would rather they gave me a quick call. I don't want him to miss out on things, but, at the same time, his safety is paramount.
We don't know where Joe's allergies come from. My husband doesn't feel well after he eats almonds, but that's about it.
My other two children are fine, with no signs of eczema, or allergies.
People don't really distinguish between intolerance and allergy. New allergy laws have come in about publishing allergens on menus, and more places are catering to people with allergies.
There aren't any allergy guidelines about cosmetics, which concerns me. When he's a teenager, a kiss could land him in hospital."
‘My husband ate a Ferrero Rocher and my lips swelled up’
Suzie Gallagher (34) is an accountant, who lives in Newtownabbey with her husband, Martin, and their son, Ryan. She says:
I have a peanut allergy, but it wasn’t confirmed until I was 17. I never liked peanuts and they always aggravated my asthma whenever I was around them, so I knew something was wrong.
I’ve only had one serious asthma attack. I was about seven. I was at my mum’s friend’s house and there were bowls of nuts everywhere.
At 17, I went for a skin test, because of my asthma and eczema and it turned out I was severely allergic to peanuts. My whole arm swelled up.
The doctor was astounded that I had never been hospitalised because of it.
While my allergy is peanuts, I won’t eat any other kind of nuts, either. I also don’t go for peas, but I think that’s a subconscious thing, as I know they’re from the same family.
I’ve had two serious reactions to peanuts. I used to work in a theatre that had a restaurant and someone offered me some alioli dip to try.
As soon as I ate it, I felt my mouth getting itchy and sore. It turned out the dip was satay.
I panicked and phoned a pharmacist friend — I didn’t know if I should use my EpiPen, or not, but she told me not to worry. If I needed it, I wouldn’t be able to talk to her, because my throat would have swollen.
It was the first time I had had such a severe reaction, so I just needed to keep calm and take antihistamine tablets to help counteract it.
I went to the doctor, who gave me a hydrocortisone injection and kept me there as a precaution for the rest of the afternoon. I was really sick, too.
My second reaction was 18 months ago in Dublin. I was on a hen ‘do’ and the restaurant made a menu for us, but they forgot to put allergen information on it.
I ordered steak and chips with pepper sauce — I always do, because that’s a safe option.
But I didn’t know the chef had made the pepper sauce with peanut butter.
I took one bite and felt my mouth go funny. The restaurant denied there were any nuts in it until we asked them to check for the third time and it turned out there was peanut butter in the pepper sauce.
I spent the rest of the evening in the hotel room being sick, which certainly put a dampener on the weekend.
I didn’t get any worse, though, because I didn’t have more than that one bite.
I carry an EpiPen, but I haven’t had to use it, or had to go to hospital. I actually find work quite hard, because my allergy is airborne.
People have nuts, or peanut butter sandwiches, at their desks at work and it starts my asthma off.
Even if you tell people about it, they don’t realise how much it can affect me.
My husband ate a Ferrero Rocher sitting beside me once and the next thing, my lips swelled up.
It does run in the family — my nephew has a peanut allergy, too, and has gone into anaphylaxis and had to be rushed to the hospital after a spoonful of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.
They had no idea he was allergic before that.
I had my son, Ryan, tested last year, because I’m petrified he might be allergic.
I know how bad I feel being near nuts, so I don’t want him eating one, in case something bad happens.
Thankfully, he has no allergies, though.”