For advice on severe allergies, visit the Anaphylaxis Campaign website www.anaphylaxis.org.uk/living-with-anaphylaxis/young-people or drop us a line info@anaphylaxis.org.uk / 01252 542029 /@ACOutthere/@Anaphylaxiscoms

Friday, 4 December 2015

Oli Weatherall: Travelling with allergies

I am a typical 18 year-old student. Having finished A-levels and with a place confirmed for University in September, I took a gap year to work and earn enough money to do some travelling. The crucial difference is that I have a severe, life threatening allergy to peanuts.

Travelling to Asia is not an easy option for me food-wise and the language barriers in Europe can make things more stressful so the option to go to Australia and New Zealand was manageable and exciting. My planning included organising extra Adrenaline Auto-Injectors (AAIs), letters from the doctor and making sure I had bags to carry my medical stuff with me 24/7 - never easy for a guy as I’m not a huge fan of man-bags!  There is still a gap in the market for this I think – one day I hope to design something suitable.

The initial obstacle was the very long flight to Sydney.  If you have a severe allergy you know that flying, especially long distances, is a daunting experience.  I flew with Qantas being the only airline that has banned serving peanuts on board (and in their lounges).   However this was a more expensive flight and I had to fly separately from my mates who flew with Emirates - cheaper and nut-serving!

The prospect of anaphylaxis whilst over some anonymous ocean is one of the most terrifying prospects I faced during my travels. I always take my own food on flights as airlines cannot guarantee that the prepared meals are 100% peanut free. I also took antiseptic wet wipes to clean surfaces in case someone before me had been eating peanuts.

Being 6ft 2”, quite sporty and constantly hungry means that I always think ahead and plan meals – being prepared is rather tedious but part of my life but it does get easier.  I took a huge bag of the healthiest, most substantial food I could find for the long plane journey, but still arrived feeling hungry!

We first drove from Sydney to Cairns – 5 large guys in a camper-van for a month was rather snug! We had a gas-stove (although it didn’t work) and I relied on stopovers at supermarkets and fast food chains en route to buy supplies that I could eat.  In supermarkets more products than in England were listed with ‘may contain traces of peanuts’ including the majority of ready-meals, cereals and some cooking oils so I had to be constantly vigilant. 

A few day and overnight trips were away from medical care and the food safety of supermarkets. On these trips I made sure to contact the organisers and explain my issue, as if they have advance warning they generally can help and make provisions. These trips were manageable - you just need to be on the ball, plan ahead (such as purchasing supplies for the trip the day before), and be extra cautious when you are more isolated.  I can never completely relax on such trips but I really enjoyed them nonetheless, especially three great days on a boat in The Whitsundays and snorkelling off the Great Barrier Reef – something I have always wanted to do and would love to do again. 

We then spent a month doing the Kiwi Experience in New Zealand which was great – my favourite activities included climbing the Franz Josef Glacier and black water rafting in a glow worm cave.  We stayed in pretty basic hostels while travelling around the North and South Islands.  The kitchens were difficult for someone with a severe food allergy, as cooking utensils were rarely washed properly so I rarely cooked.  Next time I go travelling I will take a small frying pan and cooking utensils to cook my own food safely – this would mean that I could eat a healthier diet and save money on food.

When I ate out, I had to rely mainly on fast-food franchises and these can vary considerably between and within countries.  For example, in Australia I could eat in KFC (with allergen information in every branch) but in New Zealand there was almost nothing I could eat in KFC.   Obviously the factory set-up was different in the two countries.   On my return to England I am now careful to check each and every franchise and not assume anything – it is not worth the risk.

Before flying internally with Air New Zealand I ate McDonald’s at the airport (which I checked as usual). My throat started to swell up in the airport and shortly after boarding the plane I exited.  I was assessed by the paramedics and after a few terrifying hours the swelling left and I boarded a new flight (however Air New Zealand decided my backpack shouldn’t board until a day or so later!).

All in all I had a great trip but it was a relief to return home to a stocked fridge and the safety of my mum’s kitchen and home-cooked food!   I learnt it is possible to go travelling with a severe allergy - especially in countries where there isn’t a language barrier.  It was a lot more stressful and worrying for me than for my mates but I expected that. People are generally quite helpful in dealing with allergies, and I try not to get annoyed by those who aren’t.  I cannot stress enough to always take your medical supplies at all times and tell people about your allergy – it is one part of you and nothing more – it is still possible to get out there and have fun!



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