An estimated one to two per cent of adults in the UK are thought to have a food allergy; so it’s quite likely that one of your friends, or at the very least someone you know, has either been diagnosed or will receive a diagnosis in their lifetime.

We’ve previously discussed how you can support a friend or partner with a chronic illness.

But what can you do to support someone who has a food allergy?

We got in touch with the team at Allergy UK to discuss this further; and Holly Shaw, a nurse advisor for the charity, was kind enough to offer some helpful guidance.

Learn about your friend’s allergy

When a friend is opening up about their allergy with you, it’s important to listen attentively and take the information on board. The period after receiving a diagnosis for a food allergy can be a difficult one, so the way you react can have an impact your friend’s feelings.

Holly explains: ‘A friend can support someone with a food allergy by listening, offering encouragement and being supportive. Most people are interested in food allergy and are naturally curious.’

If your friend has opened up to you, they’ve shown a trust and willingness to discuss their allergy; so don’t be afraid to engage the subject and talk to them about it, asking questions if you need to.

You can also take some time to do your own research into food allergies. ‘The Allergy UK website has a range of factsheets on different allergens and managing allergy, as well as lots of other helpful advice and information.’ Holly tells us.

The more you learn about your friend’s allergy, the more you may be able to support them and be accommodating if you’re going out to eat together, or having them around for food.

Be sensitive

Adapting to life with a food allergy can sometimes present difficulties, and may necessitate lifestyle adjustments.

Food allergies can be unpredictable and sometimes pose a serious health risk; so referring to them in a flippant manner or cracking jokes about them might not be the best way to offer support to someone trying to adjust.

That said, the situation needn’t be treated with outright negativity. Be sensitive, but be positive in offering your support too. The vast majority of people with severe food allergies are able to manage them, and get on with their daily lives unimpeded.

Tips for eating out

It goes without saying that people with allergies need to be careful when going out for a meal; but just because your friend has a food allergy doesn’t necessarily mean they want to avoid eating out altogether. Most restaurants today have allergy friendly menus or are able to make modifications to the dishes they offer, so an allergy is no longer the obstacle to eating out it might once have been.

Your friend may feel more comfortable organising the restaurant booking themselves, but if you’re organising the meal, there are some measures you can take to help it go smoothly.

‘Call ahead to the restaurant to check that they can accommodate the food allergy of your friend.’ Holly explains. ‘Pick a choice of cuisine and food outlet cautiously. For example if your friend has a nut allergy, avoiding Asian restaurants, where nuts are commonly used in meals, can help to reduce risk of an accidental exposure. Many restaurants place their menus online, so planning in advance can help to make an informed judgement on whether an individual can eat there.’

Your friend may need to ask the serving staff several questions, so let them take the lead when it comes to ordering.

When first diagnosed with a food allergy, eating out might seem like a daunting prospect; so be supportive and understanding if your friend decides not to attend initially. In such cases, you might even consider suggesting a different activity which doesn’t involve food, such as meeting up for a drink or going to the cinema.

When cooking for your friend

If you’re having a friend with a severe food allergy over for dinner, Holly has some recommendations to help make the evening go as smoothly as possible:

  • Plan ahead. ‘Forward planning and good communication are key. Make contact with all guests well in advance of the set date to determine food allergies, intolerances and other dietary requirements.’
  • Take your time to select a suitable recipe. ‘Plan and shop according to the dietary needs of your friends. Your friend with an allergy may use a particular recipe book or website to cook allergen free meals - ask them in advance to borrow it.’
  • Get into the habit of reading labels.Ensure that you are able to identify all ingredients contained in the products that you use. This is especially important if you plan to use store cupboard staples. Some ingredients are not always obviously found in certain products. For example dried packet mixes, like gravy or soup mixes, can contain cow’s milk.’
  • Get to know your friend’s allergens.There are 14 food groups that are a mandatory requirement to be emphasised on food labels (usually in bold). Be aware of products that may not have to adhere to this rule because they are produced outside the EU. Pay particular attention if your friend is allergic to a food that does not fall into the 14 major allergens (they will still be listed but not in bold).’
  • Keep products and utensils clean and separate.Be aware of cross contamination in the kitchen especially if only avoiding the allergen in the ‘food allergic friend’s’ meal. For example, not using the same chopping board, saucepan or serving tongs to prepare, cook or serve food between meals.’ Holly tells us.

You can reduce the risk of cross-contamination by:

  • thoroughly washing your hands with bar or liquid soap
  • washing surfaces with warm, soapy water
  • only using single-use kitchen towels to wipe down worktops
  • and washing all dishes and utensils with dish soap and water, or a dishwasher.

If you’re still concerned, you might consider cooking just one, single allergy-free meal for all your guests.

The vast majority of people with food allergies are happy to openly discuss them, but the subject can become tiresome for someone to constantly have to explain. If you have other friends attending the same dinner party or meal, try to avoid placing unnecessary attention on your friend’s food allergy.

Be prepared in case of an emergency

Ask your friend about their symptoms and what to expect should they come into contact with an allergen.

‘Be aware of any medication that the friend may need to treat an allergic reaction and where this is kept.’ Holly advises.

Depending on the severity of your friend’s reaction they may be prescribed with an adrenaline autoinjector, such as an Epipen, Jext or Emerade.

Food allergies can cause immediate reactions, or flare up several hours after exposure; so your friend needs to be prepared for a reaction no matter where they are or what they are doing.

‘If your friend carries an adrenaline pen then they may wish to show you how to use it if, in the case of an allergic reaction, they need help.’ Holly explains. ‘Your friend can obtain a free trainer pen from the manufacturer by visiting their website or calling their customer helpline.

Holly also suggests that friends might think about taking their first aid skills even further:

‘Consider developing your own first aid skills by doing a basic first aid course that covers allergy. This is valuable as it will go through the signs and symptoms key to recognising that a person may be having an allergic reaction.

Remember that if your friend does have a severe allergic reaction, whether they can apply an adrenaline or not, they will still need medical attention as soon as possible; so be prepared to call 999 on their behalf should the situation arise.

You can find more guidance on supporting a friend with an allergy, as well as more general information on allergies, on the Allergy UK website.