The Allergy Interview – Gemma Morris

SHE hit the headlines this month after it was revealed she suffered a massive anaphylactic shock while on a skiing holiday in Austria. Now nut allergic Sky News presenter Gemma Morris, 27, tells yesnobananas about her childhood milk and banana ‘cure’, dodgy cosmetics and how to handle eating out…

“There was no pivotal moment when I found out I had a nut allergy. I’ve had bad reactions to nuts from as far back as my memory serves me. As a small child, I used to tell my mother I was experiencing my “nut feeling”. She knew that meant my mouth was becoming itchy and irritated, and I was starting to feel a lot of discomfort.

The usual remedy was to give me bland, soft foods to take the taste away and distract from the feeling. I would have to stuff my mouth with bits of banana or drink a big glass of soya milk (not cow’s milk, it used to give me eczema apparently – an intolerance I have grown out of nowadays).

My mum told our GP about the “nut feeling” episodes. He was apparently pretty unconcerned, and simply told her not to give me nuts!?

I’m not allergic to all nuts. I’m fine with almonds (I love them, eat loads of them) and skin prick testing has twice revealed I’m fine with peanuts too. But I’ve never had the courage to eat a peanut to find out if it’s true!

I didn’t carry an Epipen until I was about 15. The school had no idea about my nut allergy. It was a large school and it felt easier just to keep my Epipens on me and take care of myself.

Many years earlier, at junior school, I remember having an allergic reaction to a chocolate that a friend had smuggled into our cloakroom at playtime. I ended up in the school office, sitting on the sofa where they made all the sick kids sit, just ‘waiting it out’ until the reaction eased off. It was horrible.

People just didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t even understand it myself. This was the very early 1990s; I can only assume allergies were less well known in those days.

My friends are very supportive. They’re used to me checking with waiting staff in every restaurant we go to.

When I was younger, there wasn’t much ‘support’ friends could offer me, really. I had my Epipens, my antihistamines, I just took care of myself when out.

I did get anxious about some nights out during those teenage years when alcohol begins to play a role. It sounds a tad over-the-top, but I used to fear that if my friends were drunk, would they still be able to ring an ambulance if I keeled over? Would they be sober enough to notice me choking on the floor trying to grab my Epipen? You can imagine the near-death scenarios I used to play out in my head before a night out! I hasten to add none of it ever actually happened.

I’ve had loads of other reactions while eating out. Among the worst and most memorable were eating a supposedly nut free salad in a café in Malta which turned out to be dressed in pesto! I had a terrible time during the following 48 hours. And eating a basic pasta dish at a restaurant in Wimbledon which I reacted to immediately. The restaurant swore blind there were no nuts in it, but I was keeling over and had to be driven home ASAP.

The nut allergy came up on the first date with my boyfriend because we were in a restaurant and I needed to check my chosen meal was nut-free. Unless I am about to eat something unfamiliar there’s no need to declare my allergy.

I eat out all the time. I just check with the waiting staff whenever I order. I find mentioning the words “severe and fatal allergy” tends to get the kitchen staff to take it seriously.

Actually, I found a great tapas restaurant at the weekend near where I live in Richmond where the waiter told me they do not use nuts in ANY of their cooking – Don Fernando. It was great to have such peace of mind when eating my dinner!

My failsafe food to order is some sort of chicken or fish salad – with dressing on the side (in case it’s a nutty pesto dressing).

When it comes to prepackaged food I’d just recommend checking the ingredients list – always.

With the ‘may contain traces of nuts’ thing it depends what the food is. If it’s something like a pot of hummus then, yes, I do eat it. If it’s a seeded bread, then no – I usually wouldn’t eat it.

To a newly diagnosed nut allergic, I would say: relax, just be careful and always carry antihistamines and an Epipen.

To a parent of a nut allergic child, I would say an even bigger RELAX – your fretting will teach your child to panic about his or her allergy. Growing up is scary enough as it is.

When you are with your child and they begin to have a reaction, please stay very, very calm and gently take the necessary measures. Teach them not to be embarrassed about their dietary needs and to have confidence in spitting something out if it doesn’t feel right!

What I’d like to see is better, bigger, clearer indications on all products containing nut derivatives. Not just food, but cosmetics too. I realised this morning that a new foundation I was about to use contained walnut extract. I wouldn’t have known had I not been reading a leaflet about it.

7 thoughts on “The Allergy Interview – Gemma Morris

  1. Pingback: Don Fernando Spanish Tapas, Richmond | yesnobananas

  2. Anonymous

    I feel quite strongly that this interview plays down the seriousness of nut allergies. It’s interesting to get Gemma’s opinion, but actually she’s incredibly lucky and unusual to only suffer a minor allergy to nuts. Most people who have an allergy to even one tree nut spend their lives avoiding all other nuts for risk of contamination. There’s certainly no way they’d be munching on almonds!

    I’m personally incredibly allergic to all tree nuts and peanuts and don’t think people should relax. If the worst thing that happens to you, is having to ‘sit and wait’ out the allergy, then it’s pretty much an intolerance isn’t it? If I eat nuts, take my epipen and still don’t go to hospital, i’ll stop breathing and die. Parents and allergy sufferers shouldn’t relax. I’ve not had a reaction since 2000 purely by being constantly aware and ensuring that everyone is aware how serious my allergies can be. Trust me, it’s no fun feeling like you are going to die.

    1. Hello there

      Thanks so much for your response. Of course I completely understand your sentiments: I am sure that anyone with a serious allergy would. As parent to a child with a list of potentially severe allergies (including nuts) I too am always vigilant, always carrying his antihistamines and Epipen and checking, checking, checking every tiny thing. I plan to teach him to do the same as he grows up.

      However, I do feel strongly that it is very important for parents with children who have serious allergies to have positive role models and to realise that there is life after allergy – you can still go out and have fun, as long as you take the necessary precautions. We all know the scary stuff; we need some perspective too.
      As for Gemma, she does have a severe allergy (and not an intolerance) as her allergic reaction whilst on holiday proves. While she says ‘relax’ she also cautions taking all the precautions necessary – if I may be so bold as to speak for her, I think she was cautioning parents not to go round in a state of perpetual panic (which it’s very hard to do, but I try!!).

      If there is one thing I have learned thus far, it’s that everyone’s allergy is different – and just because Gemma is able to eat almonds does not downplay the seriousness of her allergies to other tree nuts. My son, for instance, has been tested fairly highly positive for peanuts, cashews, brazil nuts and pistachios but not for hazelnuts. As such, we are permitted by his paediatric allergist to conduct a taste test (under careful supervision).

      I do very much appreciate your taking the time to respond. But if you take a meander around the rest of the site I hope you will see that ‘downplaying’ allergy is not the aim, whereas bringing some much-needed positivity and advice is.


  3. Thanks for doing this interview Alexa and for posting it up. As the mother of a severely allergic 34 month old I find it incredibly useful to read about how adults are handling their allergies and how they grew up with them. I also found it insightful to read your discussion above with Anonymous. I have to say that using the term ‘relax’ might be a bit misleading and perhaps Gemma just meant to not be panicking, rather than to actually ‘relax’ about your child’s allergies. There is a whole ocean between the two states of being! As with everything, balance is key and so I should hope it’s possible to be constantly alert, very cautious, but not impede your child’s existence with a panicky, stressful atmosphere. We’ve know our son’s severely allergic for 2 years now and its been a real journey trying to figure out how to handle things, to not come across as paranoid, to not care what other people say or think, to be able to explain calmly to strangers about his allergies etc. There’s so much to learn and its nice to be able to read about people who’ve gone through all this and can give their perspective.

  4. Stevie

    I have found the interview interesting to read. I am 27 and have been allergic to all nuts (including coconut) since I was a baby. It’s an allergy we hoped I would grow out of, instead it’s got worse as I’ve got older!! I am having a really tough time with it at the moment, I have always put my terrible skin down to just being spot prone, however thos is not the case! With some recent research it has become apparent I have been reacting to cosmetics and toiletries! This had been reinforced in the last 2 weeks when on holiday I have used no products on my skin whatsoever and it’s never looked so good! I have printed off a list of some nut derivative names as they are referred to on cosmetics and toilettes and headed out shopping. To my horror I have not been able to find one bottle of shampoo, body wash or bubble bath in a large Boots store or my local Morrisons store that doesn’t contain a
    derivative of coconut! I haven’t braved the make up section yet!

    If anyone has any recommendations of “nut free” products or knows of a “nut free” range/brand I would really appreciate your help!!!

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