Anaphylaxis: Could you save your best friend’s life?

Anaphylaxis is a type of allergic reaction that can kill in seconds.

As allergies are on the increase Buzz explores whether young women know enough about the dangers of allergies.


In a café a group of friends sat eating desserts. They laughed and chatted, doing all the things a normal group of girlfriends do on a shopping trip to their local town. At the ages of seventeen and eighteen the animated conversation probably surrounded boys and departures to university the following year.

What none of these girls knew was that in a matter of hours one of their best friends would be gone forever. The choice of dessert one of them made in that café would lead to her death on arrival home as she went into a severe allergic reaction.

Sarah Reading died in her garden in front of her parents and friends at the age of seventeen. Her father David, sitting in the study of his Surrey home, recalled the moment it happened. He pointed out of the window to the grass and nodded.


“She died just there actually. It was so sudden she just collapsed, we didn’t really understand what was happening and before the ambulance came she was gone.”

“Sarah knew she was allergic to peanuts but at the time she didn’t know how serious it could be. I wasn’t with her so I wouldn’t have known exactly what happened but clearly she ate it [peanuts] and strangely she got all the way home without any symptoms.”


The lack of knowledge surrounding anaphylaxis is one of its biggest dangers and although Sarah knew she had a slight allergy, she, her friends and family did not know how serious it could be. That was twenty years ago but not a lot has changed.

David's daughter died at the age of seventeen after eating some peanuts
David’s daughter died at the age of seventeen after eating some peanuts

It can happen to anyone


A small mistake with a choice of food or split second encounter with an insect or animal could mean the end of a young life. Those who suffer from anaphylaxis can go into what is known as anaphylactic shock, which can take a life in minutes. Most of us wouldn’t know what to do. This kind of reaction can kill a person in front of you. Just like Sarah.


But this doesn’t have to be the case. You could save your friend’s life just by having more knowledge about what Anaphylaxis is and how you could help when a person is having an allergic reaction.


What made Sarah’s death so scary was the delayed reaction which can sometimes happen with anaphylaxis. At the time of his daughter’s death, David knew nothing of the reaction like many people but he has sought out to change this.


David helped to form and set up the Anaphylaxis Campaign, an organisation which supports sufferers and informs the public about the risks of severe allergies. Its formation came almost immediately after Sarah’s death. David was at a loss for what to do and knew the information needed to be out there.


The Anaphylaxis Campaign has helped to introduce stricter food labeling and is responsible for many of the warnings we see on food every day. They found that GPs too needed to be educated and two decades on doctors are well versed at identifying allergies and also the testing, treatment and support they can offer.


“Sarah may have died twenty years ago but a death as sudden and unexpected as Sarah’s could still happen to anyone today. We have done so much and come so far since 1994 at the Anaphylaxis Campaign but there are still a large amount of people who don’t know enough about anaphylaxis.”


David’s work landed him an OBE in 2005. He sees the knowledge held by those around an allergy sufferer as important as what they know themselves.


“Young women who are leaving home, heading off to university or living away from their parents are at a high risk that does not get mentioned enough. Pretending you don’t have an allergy through embarrassment or lack of caring is almost as bad as not knowing you have one.”


One of the first things David suggests a young woman, who suffers from Anaphylaxis or severe allergies, should do is make sure her friends know about her allergies. Prevention of interaction with an allergy are important as well as knowing what to do when things go wrong.


A photo of the family just a few months before Sarah died
A photo of the family just a few months before Sarah died

Sarah herself did not know how serious her allergy was so of course neither did her friends but either prevention or preparation, along with original knowledge of the condition, could have saved her life.


Another danger of anaphylaxis is the assumption that allergies are only experienced by children. Anguished parents sit on news programme sofas trying to raise awareness of their child’s fight against peanuts or pets. But once these children grow into adults who should care about them?


Simply, allergy sufferers need to tell their friends. As their friends, you need to listen and learn about anaphylaxis.


Its all about the protection…

Taking the time to know and learn about how you could help someone can seem tedious, but this is not the same as doing a first aid course. A serious allergic reaction can be successfully controlled in under a minute and learning how to do this can take under ten.


All you need to know is how to use an adrenaline pen. Epipens and Jexts are the two main types in circulation and come with clear instructions printed on the side. You remove the caps on each end, place against the side of the person’s thigh, press the button and hold for 10 seconds. It is that simple.


Remember if your friend does go into an allergic reaction call an ambulance whether you are able to administer the adrenaline or not.


…and prevention 


But better than all of this is knowing how not to get to that stage. Next time you put out a bowl of peanuts at a party think again.


Another organisation which strives to support sufferers and their families is Allergy UK, who do not just focus on Anaphylaxis but on all forms of allergies and intolerances. Their Deputy CEO, Lindsey McManus, said that the key to a young woman still leading a fully normal lifestyle is to have a “management plan”.


Lindsey also agreed that young women are particularly vulnerable when it comes to having serious allergies as they can lose sight of how at risk they are.


“Having a management plan is extremely important. It provides crucial information about the allergy sufferer to those responsible for their care and wellbeing.”


Allergy UK is aiming to make schools aware of these management plans so staff can know how to deal with a child’s allergies. But this always apply to young adults… she also explained how this can apply to young adults, such as students in halls of residence.


“Explaining to friends about your allergy, what can happen and how to deal with it can help them feel more at ease, and give the allergy sufferer confidence that would know what to do in an emergency situation.”


Lindsey said some people find having an allergy embarrassing especially eczema. But they have to overcome the embarrassment with anaphylaxis as it is important for young women to realise how serious they can be.


Make sure you and your friends know enough 

In a recent survey conducted by Buzz, 55% of women aged between eighteen and thirty agreed that allergies posed a serious threat to a person’s life or health, which of course they do. Yet only a third would know what to do if a person was having a severe allergic reaction.

Rosanna makes sure her friends know about her allergies
Rosanna makes sure her friends know about her allergies

Reassuring your friends is important too as this can be quite scary. If you’re confident they will be too.


Rosanna, from Cornwall, suffers from Idiopathic Anaphylaxis – this form of anaphylaxis has an unknown trigger.


“I was embarrassed when I was younger but now I’m 22 and see how important it is to be mature about it all. My friends who I house share with know what to do if I have an allergic reaction even if I will never know what caused it.”


Rosanna may not be able to stick to a management plan but knowing how to cope when she has a reaction is of the utmost importance.


“At the very least, friends should be able to use adrenaline pens as they are key to saving a person’s life. Maybe one day it will just be common knowledge.”


Knowing what to do can save someone’s life and that someone could just be your best friend. So learn what your friends are allergic to, try your best to help them avoid their allergies and, just in case, learn how to use their adrenaline pen.

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