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‘You feel normal, but you’re not’: Living with food allergies is a daily life-or-death battle for Manchester mum

By Phil Jones

Food allergies are capable of provoking frightening forms of allergic reaction, with symptoms ranging from mild irritation, to the severest, anaphylaxis.

This is an extreme allergic reaction affecting the whole body, often within minutes of exposure to the allergen.

Common allergens include tree nuts, seafood and dairy, with symptoms varying from flushing of the skin to collapse, unconsciousness and even death.

Allergy UK estimate around 2% of the British public suffer from food allergy, with it to blame for up to ten deaths each year.

Michelle Byrne, of Flixton, has lived with her deadly nut allergy since the age of 19, but stresses that while it has a large impact, she does not let it rule her life.

The 37-year-old experienced lip swelling when eating nuts as a three-year-old and avoided them until adulthood.

Michelle trained to be a doctor, but during her training the asthma-sufferer made a startling discovery.

“A lecturer told us anyone with asthma, who has a reaction to nuts, could potentially have an anaphylactic reaction and should carry an Epi pen with them at all times,” she told MM.

“So I had some blood tests and they found I did have a severe allergy – thank god I hadn’t had any serious reaction before then as I didn’t have any medication.”

Since that day Michelle has carried an emergency Epi (adrenaline) pen with her and is extremely vigilant about what she eats.

Not only does Michelle suffer from severe asthma and the nut allergy, but also other food allergies resulting in swelling and mouth ulcers.

And she admitted coming to terms with her numerous ailments was difficult at first.

“You feel and look normal, like the rest of society, but when you have a brush with a restaurant or potential exposure to something you realise you’re not normal,” she added.

“You almost go through a grieving process, you deny it and have to come to accept it, but it’s hard.”

Due to health reasons Michelle has not worked for 11 years, and highlighted the numerous ways it affects her day-to-day life.

“Go to any sort of restaurant or coffee shop, or even a bakery, say you’ve got a nut allergy and everyone goes white,”

“One day I was holding a child that was eating a peanut butter sandwich and I was surprised I had a reaction just from the vapours.

“She didn’t touch me with it and I didn’t touch it but I still had the reaction.

“Even in intimate relationships, you can’t kiss someone if they’ve eaten nuts – you have to be very careful.”

Medical help in the city comes from the University Hospital of South Manchester’s respiratory and allergy clinical research facility.

The facility – housed in the newly opened £2.45million clinical research centre – allows for clinical trials, pioneering experimental research and patient treatment.

Professor of allergy, Adnan Custovic, heads the respiratory research group and stated the importance of support for allergy sufferers to maintain a normal life.

“Testing for food allergies is very important, they can often be mild but very often they can be debilitating and sometimes fatal,” he said.

“Allergies affect thousands of us and those affected severely should still be able to participate in all normal activities as long as they have appropriate support.”

Away from the clinical side, Michelle has learned to cope with her allergies, even setting up the Manchester Allergy Support Group to help others in need.

“I heard of a woman through my cake decorating class that wanted to make a cake for her four-year-old daughter with several food allergies,” said Michelle.

“The girl was in tears because the mum couldn’t make a cake because of the allergies, but she wanted a birthday party, with a cake, like all her friends.

“Another parent at church couldn’t get her child into nursery because of milk and egg allergies.

“All these people were coming to me from different aspects of my life, desperate to share and find they weren’t alone.”

These stories inspired Michelle to hold the first meeting in February 2012, it was publicised by the national Anaphylaxis campaign group and 14 people attended.

The group, now with 56 members, holds meetings on the first Monday of every month, with their March meeting being attended by the clinical immunologist at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

“It is quite cathartic and rewarding, some people become really desperate so it’s nice to be able to help,” added Michelle.

“I feel quite peaceful in my life, I know if I carry my adrenaline and my inhaler around then I feel quite confident – as long as I’m careful I can live a virtually normal life.

“But people come with such tragic stories, one lady has a panic attack every morning because she doesn’t know what she’s going to eat that day.”

The Manchester Allergy Support Group is endorsed and supported by the Anaphylaxis Campaign with their next meeting at St John’s Church, Flixton, February 4, 7-8.30pm.

Picture courtesy of matthurst, with thanks

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