How to talk about allergies in English

by Laura Jones
January 07, 2021
woman sneezing because she has allergies

Are you allergic to anything? If you are, you know how important it is to be able to talk about your allergies in a foreign language. You might need to ask a waiter what’s in a dish while you’re on holiday or politely tell your Airbnb host that you’re allergic to dogs. So let’s have a look at some common allergies and how to talk about them in English

Basic allergy vocabulary

Two questions that you’re most likely to get, and you might want to ask someone are: Are you allergic to anything? or Do you have any allergies?. If you’re planning to cook someone dinner these are good questions to ask. If you want to tell someone that you have allergies, here are two simple ways: I’m allergic to… and I have an allergy to…

Hay fever

Do you find yourself sneezing uncontrollably when Spring rolls around? Unfortunately, that beautiful time of year often brings allergies with it. Allergies to grass and tree pollen are very common and people have symptoms like sneezing and coughing, a runny nose and itchy eyes, nose and throat. You can make yourself feel better with remedies from a pharmacist which are called antihistamines.

Your conversation with a pharmacist might go something like this: 

“I’ve got hay fever. Can you recommend something?”

“Yes, of course. You can take these antihistamine tablets which should make you feel better, and if your eyes are itchy you can use these eye drops.”

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Insect bites and stings

Bites and stings from insects are just annoying for most of us, causing mild itching, a little swelling and small, red lumps on our skin. However, for some people the buzzing sound of an insect coming near is cause for a lot of concern. Bites and stings can cause an anaphylactic reaction in people, which needs to be treated with an adrenaline auto-injector; most people who know they are allergic carry these all the time. Bees and wasps are the insects most likely to cause these kinds of reactions.

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What’s the difference between a bite and a sting?

Insects bite using their mouth and they usually happen when an insect needs to eat or to defend itself. Venomous insects sting and they use their stingers to inject toxic venom into their victim, often as a defense mechanism. So mosquitoes bite, but bees sting. 

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Food allergies

Food allergies are also common and in some cases they can be very serious. Some of the most common foods that people are allergic to are nuts, shellfish, milk and eggs. If you’re allergic to any of these things, when you go to a restaurant you need to be able to ask about the dishes in English. For example, you can ask the waiter, “Does this dish contain nuts? I have a peanut allergy”, or, “Please can you check if there are eggs in that?”. Menus will often have signs next to the dishes to indicate whether these common allergens are part of the ingredients. 

Another common thing people need to avoid is gluten, especially those people who have coeliac disease. Gluten-free dishes are common in restaurants and cafes all over the UK and your waiter will understand if you tell them, “I have coeliac disease, which dishes are safe for me to eat?”. You might see “May contain traces of gluten” on food labelling in the UK; even though traces are very small amounts, these products are not ok for people with coeliac disease so you will want to avoid them. 

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Medicines

Some people are allergic to the very things that are supposed to make us feel better! Any medicine can cause an allergic reaction but there are some that we’re more likely to be allergic to. These include antibiotics, like penicillin, and painkillers like ibuprofen and aspirin. Most doctors will ask you if you’re allergic to anything before they treat you, and you should also tell a pharmacist if you’re buying medicine. You might want to say, “I’m allergic to ibuprofen, do you have an alternative?”. 

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Allergic to animals?

If you sneeze around cats and get a runny nose around dogs, you probably have a pet allergy. The most common allergies are to cats and dogs, but you can have them to any animal with fur. Sneezing, a runny nose and itchy eyes are the symptoms that people get most often, but some people can also have trouble breathing. Pet-owners adore their animals, so it’s important to be delicate when you’re explaining about your allergy. Less, “Get that cat away from me”, and more, “Unfortunately I’m allergic to cats, would you mind if he stayed in another room?”. 

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