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Food Allergy

Food Allergy: Teens Talk About It

It is known that teenagers with food allergies face the biggest risks of reactions of any age group. To understand what it feels like to be an adolescent with life-threatening allergies, Allergic Living and Anaphylaxis Canada held an informal discussion with six Ontario students. The participants proved insightful, opinionated and concerned about awareness. Moderators were Gwen Smith of Allergic Living and Adil Mamodaly of Anaphylaxis Canada. Following is the full transcript of the discussion that appears in the Fall 2006 issue ofAllergic Living magazine.

Profiles of the Participants

    Julia, 16

  • Grade 11
  • Allergies: Milk and dairy, tree nuts; has asthma
  • Lives in: Toronto
  • Reactions: Has had more than 5 “Milk is in everything and hard to avoid; tree nut isn’t as hard.”
  • Auto-injector: EpiPen in her backpack
  • David, 15

  • Grade 10
  • Allergies: peanuts, soy, raw apples; has asthma and oral allergy syndrome
  • Lives in: Toronto
  • Reactions: 3 anaphylactic reactions when younger, asthma sometimes flares
  • Auto-injector: in his backpack, also carries puffer
  • Dylan, 16

  • Grade 11
  • Allergies: peanuts
  • Lives in: Aurora, Ont.
  • Reactions: None, but positive skin test and oral challenge at age 9
  • Auto-injector: always on him
  • Jason, 18, Dylan’s brother

  • Started university this fall
  • Allergies: peanuts, tree nuts
  • Lives in: Aurora, Ont.
  • Reactions: 1 severe, anaphylactic reaction: “It’s not fresh in my head; I was 18 months old.”
  • Auto-injector: always on him
  • Gardner, 15

  • Grade 10
  • Allergies: peanuts, tree nuts, penicillin
  • Lives in: Bowmanville, Ont.
  • Reactions: 1 anaphylactic episode at age 1 1/2
  • Auto-injector: clips on two-dose Twinject
  • Pat, 17

  • Started college this fall
  • Allergies: shellfish
  • Lives in: Aurora, Ont.
  • Reactions: 1 minor; throat tightened after eating shrimp. Skin test was positive.
  • Auto-injector: only carries EpiPen when eating at restaurant

LIFE IN HIGH SCHOOL

Gwen Smith: Are teachers and fellow students aware of your
life-threatening allergies?

Gardner: In senior public school, everyone knew I was allergic. You
go to high school, and only the same people know. And I don’t really
tell a lot of people about my allergies. The teachers also know.

David: My close group of friends knows, that’s probably it.

Dylan: In Grade 9, I didn’t want to tell anyone, it was that fitting
in thing. But this year, I’m telling more people. I get paranoid some
days because I’ve been noticing more and more people eating peanut
butter stuff from the vending machines: Snickers bars or Reese’s
Pieces.

Pat: People don’t bring shrimp to school, so it really doesn’t come
up, except when all my friends go to the Mandarin [restaurant], I
can’t go.

GS: Have you noticed any change with the implementation of Sabrina’s
Law in Ontario, which requires schools to have a plan in place to
protect anaphylactic students?

David: Absolutely nothing. If I were to ask anyone about Sabrina’s
Law, I doubt anyone would know. I haven’t heard a thing about it in
my school.

Jason: The only thing that changed is that the principal called me
down and asked me to bring an EpiPen to put in the school office. And
he asked everyone known to be anaphylactic to do the same. We all
kind of ignored it because there were a lot of us – two pages of
names – and how many EpiPens do they need in one office? There were
people I knew on the list that I didn’t know had allergies – it was
really weird.

Usually I just let teachers know that I’m allergic and ask that if
they see people sneaking in food, to make sure that they’re not
eating it in class. The main thing that concerns me is: was the
person sitting at the desk before me eating something.

Julia: My teacher knew about Sabrina’s Law, so I asked if she was
going to inform other teachers. And she said, ‘Do you want to help
me?’ So [in November 2005] I had to talk in front of all the teachers
and tell them how to use an EpiPen and what symptoms to look for.
None of the teachers had been trained.

Also, I don’t eat from the cafeteria; I bring lunch. I can’t eat
what’s in there with the cooking oils, cheese; there’s so much
contamination.

Gardner: My school is fairly peanut-free. Our cafeteria has a sticker
on it calling it a “peanut and tree-nut-free area”. In February,
though, I started to get, like, severe paranoia. Every time I ate
something, even if I took a bite of stuff I brought from home, I
thought my throat was closing in on me. It got bad to the point that
I got scared off eating, so I don’t eat at school anymore.”

GS: Did it feel like a reaction?

Gardner: I don’t know, because I’ve never had one [he last reacted as
a toddler]. I get up early and have a lot for breakfast and then eat
when I get home. I don’t think it was too healthy, though, because I
lost about 10 pounds after starting high school. And then my system
got used to it and the weight got back up.

Adil Mamodaly: So what do you do at lunchtime?

Gardner: I’ll still sit with my friends, and hang out, have a drink.

AM: Is there anything you’d like to see happen at your high school on
allergies?

David: I would just like to see the principal make a reference to it
in one of her speeches because very few people know about it at my
school. If I were to ask maybe 200 kids, I’d be very surprised if
even 10 of them knew what anaphylaxis was.

Julia: For me, it’s the follow-through. I did that teacher training,
I went away and now I’m regretting not following through. But I think
they should have followed through.

Jason: Yeah, the follow-through. They also hadn’t talked to me [about
anaphylaxis] since. When there are people in your school who can die
that easily, it should be a pretty big priority.
Since I started going to high school, they hadn’t mentioned it
[anaphylaxis] at all. Well, I had one teacher mention to the class
that I was allergic, but other than that, it was me mentioning it to
the entire class. There’s a complete lack of awareness at the high
school level, as far as I can tell. The administration and teachers
might know about allergies, but they don’t make sure the students
know. That would be the whole point – I don’t hang out with the
principal at lunch, I hang out with my friends.

AM: Would you want the teacher to explain anaphlaxis in general or to
point you out?

Jason: I don’t mind being singled out.

David: The more you can say about it (anaphylaxis), the better. I
don’t care if you single me out. In fact, I’d encourage them to
single me out. If no one knows what’s wrong with me and I’m on the
floor, nothing is going to happen.

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.