Living with allergies

What is day-to-day life like for people with debilitating allergies?
26 May 2023

Interview with 

Stephen Whitehead & Sarah Pandolfino, Allergy UK


No peanuts


As we head towards warmer weather here in the northern hemisphere, the air is filling up with pollen, causing hay fever havoc for many. But there are some for whom the allergy problem is year long. According to some sources, more than 1 in 3 people in the UK suffer from some form of allergy, and 10% of the health service drug budget is put towards allergy medication. And for some, it's an everyday struggle...

Will - Allergies can affect any one of us. In fact, some estimates put the number of people worldwide with an allergy as high as one in three. And for most people that suffer from an allergy, it's a case of taking an antihistamine and moving on. But for some, their allergy dictates and restricts parts of their lives. And I've been hearing from some of these people.

Sarah - I'm Sarah, I'm Max's mum. This time last year he had multiple, multiple allergies, like so many. But now we are only down to two. So at the moment we avoid peanuts and we avoid lentils. But this time last year we had milk, egg, sesame, chickpeas, peas, fish. There was a whole lot of things we avoided.

Stephen - Name is Stephen. I'm 46 years old and the allergy I have is that I have an autoimmune disorder or autoimmune disease that manifests itself primarily in atopic dermatitis, but it's also affecting me with hair loss in the form of alopecia universalis. I've sort of suffered with hay fever throughout my life also with eczema as well.

Will - Allergies can be caused or made worse by a wide variety of things. From pollen, to bee stings, to penicillin. And for certain people it's a great many of these things.

Stephen - I certainly suffer with certain foods. I suffer with periods of stress or when I've not had a lot of sleep, I suffer with temperature increases. It suffers as well when I exercise. So there's a lot of things for me really. But I do believe that food triggers it as well, certainly. Because I know that there's certain foods that I eat that I consider no-no's. Unfortunately, they're nice foods and I do treat myself to them now and again, but knowing that they're going to bite me.

Will - So how, then, can these people hope to manage or mitigate their exposure to allergens?

Sarah - Because I was still breastfeeding him, I had to give up everything that he was allergic to, which made my diet very restricted. And his diet was really restricted as well. Once we realised that he was allergic to many other things. It was hard because then everything we gave him for the first time, you were kind of on edge all the time.

Stephen - I certainly watch what I eat. I try and avoid foods that do trigger my allergic reaction. So I have to be really careful about if I'm going to be having any of these things. Weddings and parties and things seem to really affect me. So I have to be quite controlled at those events. I've had to stop going to the gym because I was suffering with the excessive sweat in the air conditioned environment. I'm uncomfortable traveling on airplanes. I have to be very careful going to foreign countries with the climate and the foods that they offer. So there's a lot of changes that I've had to make because of my allergies.

Will - It's also important to note that allergies do not just take a physical toll on people, but also a mental one.

Stephen - Yeah, it's had a negative effect on my mental health for sure. Obviously the alopecia is very, very visual. So when I lost my hair, I essentially just became a bit of a recluse for a couple of years. It was probably fortunate that this happened during lockdown in that, you know, people were not seeing as many people as they normally would. So it enabled me to hide away a little bit. So yeah, that did affect me really sort of quite seriously to the point where I went to see my doctor about how it was affecting me and how I was suffering psychologically.

Sarah - It's not just a case of, 'okay, well we'll just avoid that then.' Places like soft play for children, they really freak me out because you look around and you don't know what snacks parents have brought for their kids and you know, then they're running around the soft play or my child is also touching that. And again, I don't know how much of a peanut, for example, would cause an allergic reaction. So I feel like I'm constantly on edge and looking around for food really. At two and three years old, he puts everything in his mouth. So I'm constantly hovering over him in a park because I don't know what he's picking up. And I think the impact on myself was greater than anybody else. I'm quite a tense individual anyway. So I kind of really took my responsibility with that quite seriously. And it was really difficult and it still is quite difficult now to go to places like soft play.

Will - And for these extreme sufferers, what do they think of the public's perception of allergies and the way that they manifest?

Sarah - The industry I suppose that causes me the most anxiety is the food and restaurant and that kind of area. You know, eating out is really kind of anxiety provoking because you don't know how well the person who's taken your order understands what you've said. And if they've taken this seriousness of what you've said and taken that message to the kitchen. And so then the kitchen can be careful. And I would really like to see the food and drink sector move into a more inclusive headspace, if you like.

Stephen - I think people are becoming more aware, but I do think that there's still a mindset with a lot of people who just think eczema is just a bit of a rash. They don't understand the seriousness of it and how deeply and cruelly it can affect people's lives. To the point that some people get depressed with it. It can affect relationships, it can break relationships, it can make people not want to go out in public. It can make people not want to work. It can affect people with not wanting to do physical activities. It can affect people with, you know, struggling to form new relationships and feeling confident enough to go out there if they're single and try and meet someone new. So yeah, I think that people don't realise all those effects, that if you are a sufferer, you're fully aware of them and you know, they can have a very detrimental effect on your life.


Add a comment