Students reminded to manage allergies away from home

By Philippa Roxby
Health reporter, BBC News

image captionHelen (centre) coped with her allergy with the help of five student housemates

In the next few weeks thousands of young people will be starting university - and many of those will be embarking on a new life away from home.

For students like Helen Kitley, 21, from Kent, going to university in Southampton meant more than just learning to do her own washing and cooking.

It entailed coping with a severe allergy to hazelnuts, which almost put her off the whole idea of living in student accommodation.

"Every student kitchen has Nutella in it - students are nuts about it - but for me it was like a little pot of poison looking at me."

Severe allergic reactions, known as anaphylaxis, are very dangerous and can be fatal. There are thought to be about 20 deaths every year in the UK from anaphylaxis - and five of those result from food allergies.


But according to a survey of 500 young people aged 15 to 25, carried out by the charity Anaphylaxis Campaign, more than a third said they don't always carry their life-saving adrenaline with them.

Adrenaline auto-injectors, such as Epipens, are the only effective emergency treatment for anaphylaxis which can be used as soon as the allergic reaction takes hold, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

For Helen, her adrenaline pen is something she is never without.

"It seems reckless to me not to take it with you. I bring it everywhere because I just don't think it's worth the risk.

"I don't always know where I will be eating so it's just good sense to pop it in my handbag."

Angela Simpson, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester, says that teenagers and students are in the highest risk group for anaphylaxis.

She says this is part of this age group's bid for independence.

"It's about mums no longer supervising what they eat, it's about drinking a bit too much alcohol and not wanting to embarrass themselves if they can't eat somewhere when everyone else wants to."

Helen considered staying at home because of her allergy, but changed her mind.

"I really wanted the proper uni experience," she says. "I asked lots of different universities about their policy on allergies and I was impressed when I heard that Southampton was so clued up about it."

Although Helen's allergy is specific to hazelnuts, she cannot eat other nuts either, which means that wherever she lives has to be a nut-free zone.

In her first year she plumped for catered accommodation where she could choose her meals and in her second and third years she lived in a shared house with five student friends where she had to manage food more carefully.

Her house mates agreed they would not bring nuts into the kitchen or in any communal areas, but she still remembers finding a gateau with a hazelnut topping in the fridge, muesli in the cupboard and Quality Streets in the living room.

"I don't blame them because you just don't think about it if it doesn't affect you, but they are generally very good because they don't want to be the cause of me having an allergic reaction," she says.

Better evidence

A major international study into allergies, called iFAAM, began earlier this year at the University of Manchester. It is searching for answers to why the prevalence of food allergies has increased over the past 20 years, whether there is a link between childhood diet and allergies and what makes certain foods cause allergic reactions.

As part of the study, researchers plan to analyse the molecules that make up peanuts in minute detail using new, ground-breaking equipment to find out more about why they are so dangerous for some people.

It is already known that the reaction from boiled peanuts is much less than from roasted ones, for example.

Prof Clare Mills, a molecular scientist working on the study, says there could be years of work ahead on allergies.

"Food is taken as an everyday given, it's just seen as a part of everyday living but it's very complicated - even roasting a peanut."

At the end of the study she hopes they will have much better evidence on allergens and better tools to help the food industry manage nuts during the manufacturing process.

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