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Allergies at University – How I Stay Confident and Safe

In 2015, 18-year-old Andrea Mariano died only weeks into her studies at Queen’s University. She had anaphylaxis—life threatening food allergies to peanuts and dairy products. She died after drinking a smoothie on campus. Her story is only one of many. Allergic Living magazine has reported on studies that show the highest rates of food allergy fatalities are among young adults. 

When I heard this story, I was 15 and already worried out of my mind about university. I’ve had anaphylaxis since I was a toddler, and I’m allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sunflower seeds, and mustard. I was already having a tough time managing my allergies at high school…I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be in university. This is a worry for many of the 2.6 million Canadians who suffer from food allergies, and for anaphylactic young adults like myself, it is harrowing to know that you are part of the most at-risk group of allergy sufferers. 

It is important for food allergy sufferers to note that the tragic story of Andrea Mariano is a relatively rare one. 3 500 Canadians will experience anaphylactic shock this year, and a dozen of them will, unfortunately, be fatal. One of the things that makes me feel most safe is when the people around me have an idea of what anaphylaxis is, so that they understand why I can and can’t eat certain things. So, here’s a quick overview (as well as some helpful links) of anaphylaxis for those who don’t have it!

Food Allergy Canada defines anaphylaxis as “a serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death”. People can have food allergies but are not anaphylactic, meaning that their reactions do not have the capacity to be fatal. Anaphylaxis is also not limited to food—individuals can be anaphylactic to insect stings, medications, latex, and in very rare cases, exercise. Currently, the Government of Canada recognizes peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, eggs, milk, sesame, soy, mustard, and wheat as the most common food allergens, and are “priority” allergens for food labelling purposes. More than 40% of Canadians examine the ingredient information on food labels, either for themselves or for someone they know with anaphylaxis. 

Epinephrine auto-injectors are an absolute necessity for those with anaphylaxis, as the drug is life-saving. The most common form of the injector is the EpiPen, with the catchy and helpful jingle “blue to the sky, orange to the thigh”, referring to the orange needle end of the injector and how it is to be injected into the meaty part of the thigh. Since anaphylaxis can affect more than one body system, is it integral that the EpiPen is administered as soon as possible. 

So, how have I had a successful year at university without any anaphylactic reactions? The tragic story of Andrea Mariano was a stark reminder of how serious anaphylaxis is, and that the university environment has the potential to be dangerous. From that, I was able to develop my own set of strategies to help me navigate my first year in this new space. The first and most important thing that I did was explain my allergies to my new friends and others who are close to me. I explained exactly what I outlined above: my allergies, what anaphylaxis is, and how to use the EpiPen. Knowing that the people around me are aware of the seriouesness of my condition allows me to relax a little bit. 

Another thing that makes me feel much safer is eating with other people as often as possible, especially if I’m eating somewhere I’ve never been before. Having others around helps me feel more secure about eating, since I know I’d have somebody who could call 9-1-1 or help me to administer the EpiPen. For all my allergic friends out there, remember, there’s nothing wrong with asking your friends to wash their hands after they’ve eaten something you’re allergic to. This is something that is sometimes tricky for me, but it is such a simple gesture, and any good friend would be happy to do so to make you more comfortable.

Any time I am eating food that I haven’t prepared myself, I call whoever is in charge of food preparation and have a discussion with them about potential meals that would be safe for me. I most recently did this at Burwash Dining Hall at Victoria College, and they were incredibly helpful and accommodating. Knowing exactly what is in the food I eat is an often tiring process, but a necessary one nonetheless. There’s no better way to stay safe on campus then to have as much knowledge as possible on the food you’re eating.

All in all, I’ve had a great experience managing my allergies on campus this year, and most of it is due to thorough research, preparation, lots of e-mails to chefs, and great, supportive friends.

My advice for those of us with food allergies: don’t be afraid to ask for help! By keeping your friends (and chefs) aware of your needs, you reduce the risk of having an allergic reaction, and increase your enjoyment of meals and leisure time. 

My advice for those without food allergies: ask your friends if they have any allergies! They may be relieved that you’ve asked. If they do, ask what you can do to make them feel safe! They may teach you how to use the EpiPen, or ask you to wash your hands after eating something they’re allergic to. 

Happy (and safe) eating! 


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