Mum reveals the constant worry of daughter’s severe allergies
- Credit: Su Anderson
Each year, the number of allergy sufferers in the UK increases by 5%, with half of those affected being children.
For many, it can inform almost every aspect of daily life, as Sheena Grant reports.
Holly Manning was just nine months old when she suffered her first allergic reaction. Her mother, Kate, will never forget it.
“I gave her a tiny piece of scrambled egg and within an hour her body had doubled in size,” she recalls. “She came out in hives (a skin rash) from head to toe and just passed out.”
Kate rushed her daughter to hospital, where she was treated and made a full recovery, but four weeks later the same thing happened again.
This time, Kate had been eating peanut butter.
“I picked her up but had a tiny bit of the butter on my hands, which she reacted to. We went straight back to the hospital,” she says. “It was horrific.”
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Six years on and Holly is still allergic to eggs and peanuts as well as cats and latex. She also has asthma, which can cause coughs and colds to become chest infections. Last year she was hospitalised with pneumonia.
But the family, who live at Great Cornard, has adapted. Holly’s allergies are so much part of their lives that they all take them in their stride.
Even so, admits Kate, she would be lying if she said the peanut allergy, in particular, wasn’t a constant worry, as the merest contact with even a trace of peanut could trigger a severe reaction.
“That is what I live in fear of,” she says. “We have learned she can tolerate egg if it is broken down and cooked, say as part of a cake. The egg allergy is something she could grow out of. The peanut one she is stuck with for life. It is part of all our lives. We don’t know any different. We know how to shield her from anything potentially risky.”
Holly is one of a growing number of people to suffer from allergies.
Around 21 million adults in the UK have at least one allergy, and numbers are rising. Each year, allergy sufferers are increasing by 5%, with half of all those affected being children.
According to the charity Allergy UK, recent studies show that the rate of peanut allergy has doubled over a five-year period in Europe and the US. It is now estimated to affect one in 50 infants. The reasons for this increase are not fully understood but the charity says it is in line with the rise in all forms of allergy, including asthma, eczema and hay fever.
While children often grow out of other allergies, only about 20% of nut allergies resolve. This means four out of five sufferers will continue to be affected. In some people, the allergy may become less severe with age but in 20% it can become worse with time. And while most allergic reactions are mild, a few can be severe, causing breathing difficulties or a drop in blood pressure, a condition known as anaphylaxis.
In addition, says Allergy UK, research shows lives are at risk because many people wouldn’t recognise the symptoms of an allergic reaction. A study by the charity revealed that 65% of people in East Anglia wouldn’t know what to do if they saw someone suffering an allergic reaction, 60% wouldn’t know how to use a life-saving adrenaline auto-injector and 71% would be scared or anxious about doing so.
Yet the hesitation is unwarranted. If the situation is misjudged and the injector is used unnecessarily but in the correct way, the adrenaline would not cause any lasting harm, but the consequences of not using one could be fatal.
The biggest lack of knowledge is among 18-24 year olds. The survey shows that 74% would not know what to do if they saw someone having a reaction, making them the least allergy aware group.
The research comes as the latest NHS statistics reveal hospital admissions in England for allergic reactions are soaring to more than 20,000 each year, of which 60% (12,560) are emergencies.
Allergy UK’s Lindsey McManus says: “Anaphylaxis is a sudden and severe allergic reaction which can be terrifying at best and fatal at worst. There is a concerning lack of awareness of this condition.
“Thousands of people are being admitted to hospital every year and the number of sufferers is soaring. Yet allergy is still a relatively hidden epidemic. More must be done to raise awareness of the deadly condition if lives are to be saved.
“People need to understand the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction and have the knowledge and confidence to act swiftly if faced with an emergency by administering a life-saving injection. We are urging people to educate themselves on the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, which could potentially save lives.”
All the family’s friends and relatives understand about Holly’s allergies. Her school is a nut-free zone and staff are trained to use Holly’s auto-injector EpiPen, should they need to.
But such understanding is not always widespread.
“The hardest thing is finding restaurants to eat in,” says Kate. “They can be so blasé about it. Some of them think you are being awkward if you ask them whether they are sure no peanut products have been in contact with the food. We had a situation where we went to a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and they were handing out eggs which were full of nuts. I raised it with the head office of the restaurant concerned, who apologised. We stick to what we know. You can’t go wrong with chips and chicken nuggets.
“It is a constant worry. Holly is very clever and will always ask if something has nuts in it. For her to be that aware at her age is amazing. If she is invited to a party I will explain the situation and people understand.”
Holidays can be difficult too and often involve a huge amount of pre-planning and taking lots of things with them to ensure Holly’s safety. Holly’s dad, Carl, also has a nut allergy but his didn’t surface until he was in his teens. Thankfully, her four-year-old sister, Isabella, is unaffected.
“Holly did get frustrated when she was younger about why she had to be careful but her sister didn’t. But she understands now,” says Kate. “Despite the fact that it is relatively common nowadays I don’t think people generally are as aware as they should be of what could happen if someone around them was affected. It is so important to get the message out there.
“I am so proud of Holly and the way she copes with it. In a sense we don’t know any different because she is our first born and it’s been part of our lives for so long but she is still brilliant about it.
“I have got a friend who has got horrendous allergies. She is 40 and still finding things that she is allergic to. She gives me great support and Holly too.”
Thankfully, Holly’s asthma has been stabilised since her pneumonia and recurrent chest infections.
“She has two different inhalers a day and takes a steroid tablet,” says Kate. “When she’s got a cough or cold it really hits her and goes straight to her chest. Like everything else she copes brilliantly. She just gets on with it.”
She also has an allergy to latex, which affects her skin, and cats, which results in a swollen face, runny eyes and nose.
Kate knows that in the future she and Carl will have to hand evermore responsibility to Holly for the management of her own condition and keeping herself safe.
“There is going to have to be a point where she learns to self administer (the EpiPen) and it will become her responsibility,” she says. “The same with her friends. There will come a point where they have to know how to do it and look out for the signs of her needing it. But she’s a bright girl and I’m sure she will be fine.”
Spotting symptoms of an allergic reaction early is vital. When asked, one in four people mistakenly believed facial weakness is a symptom of an allergic reaction and 15% wrongly cited pain down the arm as a sign of anaphylaxis.
Allergy UK is calling on people to recognise the symptoms of an allergic reaction with an easy-to-remember ‘FEAR’ checklist:
Face - is their face/lips swollen? Have they gone pale? Are they lightheaded?
Eyes - is there a look of fear in their eyes? Are they red, watery and puffy?
Airways - are they wheezing/uncontrollably coughing? Is there shortness of breath? Are they unable to talk? Are they making a strange sound?
Rash - is there a red, raised, itchy rash anywhere, especially on their face or neck?
If a combination of these symptoms is visible, the advice is to administer adrenaline into the upper outer thigh and call 999. If the symptoms do not improve after five minutes, administer a second dose of adrenaline into the other thigh.
How to save a life
Most people have no idea where to inject an adrenaline pen (mid- outer thigh). This lack of public knowledge is a major contributing factor to why allergy sufferers are so fearful of a reaction.
Nearly all those living with a severe allergy say their daily life is affected by the condition, with 92% concerned about eating out, while 82% worry about going on holiday.
Allergy UK has issued a report entitled ‘Living in Fear’ which contains further insight into the daily impact that allergy has on the lives of its sufferers.
For more information visit www.allergyuk.org.