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Living with an allergy

Living with an allergy

When Auckland chef Ros Campbell tasted a small crumb of parmesan cheese as part of her job, the last thing she expected was to have a life-threatening allergic reaction and end up at the nearest A&E.

“I had to give up my career and couldn’t work for two-and-a-half years,” she says of the impact of her food allergies. Although Ros had food allergies in her childhood, she had outgrown them, but they made a reappearance when she was in her 40s.

However, she turned a disadvantage into an advantage and four years ago set up a bakery specialising in wheat, gluten, egg and dairy-free goods.

Allergy Awareness Week, which kicks off on May 10, is highlighting the life-altering effect allergies have on sufferers like Ros. Allergies affect almost 50 per cent of New Zealanders. Young children commonly suffer from eczema and food allergies and as they get older, develop asthma and hay fever as part of what is commonly referred to as the allergic march.

Many people with allergies are living with the time bomb of life-threatening allergic reactions, where a mere trace of something as innocent as peanuts, shellfish, wheat, dairy products or eggs, an insect sting, exposure to latex or specific drugs can have them experiencing one of the most terrifying types of reactions: anaphylactic shock.

Anaphylaxis affects the whole body, is severe and can be fatal. Food allergy is the most common cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital environment, where things like anaesthetics and other drugs are to blame. Bee and wasp stings are a well-known cause of anaphylaxis and particularly in New Zealand, where we have a large and flourishing bee industry.

People with allergies spend their lives avoiding the things that most people enjoy having contact with, from foods to flowers, from sports equipment to pets. Contact with any of these things can be enough to kill someone, cause an emergency trip to hospital or simply make their day or week miserable. In many cases, people are unable to work effectively and allergy causes a significant number of lost working days for employers and employees.

Apart from the life-threatening allergies, there are many people who struggle with the symptoms of allergy for years and become very frustrated in the path to get an accurate diagnosis.

Eczema is one of the most frustrating of all allergic conditions. It is recognised as one of the main allergic markers in infants. If a child shows signs of eczema, it is essential that the allergy prevention measures be put in place. In a recently completed ETAC study (Early Treatment of the Atopic Child) in the UK, it was found that 80 per cent of children with infantile eczema went on to develop asthma. Many of these children had food allergy and also developed allergies to house dust mites, cats, etc.

Thirteen-month-old Bob is a typical eczema sufferer. “He looked as though he had been burnt from head to foot,” his mother Julie says. “When it got infected it would weep, and his face would stick to his cot sheet. His skin would go grey and slough off.”

Bob’s eczema had a huge impact on his family’s life. For a few months, he was more awake than he was asleep. “We would sleep with him in our bed so we could pin his hands and feet down so he couldn’t scratch. Some nights he woke up every hour,” Julie recalls.

A typical day involved Julie giving Bob two to three baths, plus covering him in thick moisturiser. She would continually monitor his temperature, change his clothes accordingly and try to keep on top of the extra washing. Sheets would have to be changed every day, as well as the house being vacuumed, and Julie would have to keep Bob to a special diet and make his food from scratch.

“Some days we just broke down watching this little baby suffer so much. Some days I just couldn’t face giving him two baths or changing his clothes or bibs so often and then I felt really guilty. I would look at other people’s babies with perfect skin and feel really jealous. My husband felt responsible for his suffering as genetics does play a part and my husband has asthma and eczema.”

The financial impact was also significant. Special foods are expensive and baby food manufacturers have a limited range of foods that are free from allergens, Julie says. The only cream that didn’t make his skin worse was not fully funded by Pharmac, and even hospital-prescribed ointment required a part payment. Antihistamines aren’t fully funded and can cost up to $80 a month, and if they ever needed an EpiPen (an auto-injector of adrenaline) they would have to pay $145 for that – and two are recommended.

“Bob can only wear cotton clothing and needs loads of sets because they have to be changed if they get wet or get food on them.”

But there was light at the end of the tunnel when Bob’s parents could take no more and were referred to a paediatrician. Skin prick tests found he was allergic to dairy, egg and peanut. His skin cleared up after all traces of these foods were eliminated from his diet.

While Bob was lucky to have his allergies diagnosed early, allergy is often overlooked in children with common childhood problems. Recurrent ear infections and repeated upper airway infections can be a sign of allergy. It is important that children are allergy tested to identify whether these complaints have an underlying allergic cause. If allergy is diagnosed, the ear infections may disappear once exposure to the allergen is removed, and repeated treatment with antibiotics becomes unnecessary. An example is a child with an undiagnosed allergy to house dust mites, who has had a year of repeated ear infections, glue ear and the resulting antibiotics. The allergy is discovered and dust mite barrier bedding covers are put on the bed, a vacuum cleaner with an effective HEPA, or equivalent filter is used and the carpets are removed from the bedroom and the ear infections spontaneously disappear!

The best way to prevent symptoms is to avoid what triggers the allergy. The allergic person needs to become very aware of when symptoms develop and take steps to reduce contact with the offending substances. Identifying allergens is not simple and may require skilled intervention or help. That's where Allergy New Zealand comes in: providing support, education and information to reduce the incidence of allergy and the severity of reactions, and saving lives and improving daily quality of life!

One Allergy New Zealand member describes a life on antihistamines, asthma medications, nasal sprays, eye drops and occasional steroids for chronic hay fever and asthma. She finally had an accurate diagnosis of allergy to house dust mites. After buying a new vacuum cleaner, putting dust mite barrier bedding covers on her bed and removing the carpets from her bedroom, she can’t believe the difference in her life. No longer taking any medication at all, she has been symptom-free for nearly a year.

If allergy means just a bit of hay fever for you, it may mean that you have the potential to pass on the genetic predisposition to allergy to your children. Children with one parent with any allergies have about a 60 per cent chance of developing allergies and this increases to 80 per cent if both parents have allergies.

The risk of developing allergy is what is inherited, not the specific allergic condition. Therefore, if you or your partner suffers from a bit of hay fever, or eczema or asthma your children are at risk of becoming allergic in some way.

The reasons for developing allergies are not entirely known, but any person may develop allergies at any age.

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