There is nothing quite so refreshing as a walk through your local park or along a woodland trail or a few hours spent messing with plants and earth in your garden. But I’m aware that several people, including parents of children with OFG, and severely reactant adults, are understandably nervous of entering what is, after all, a largely uncontrolled environment.
This guide will, I hope, be updated regularly with key hints and tips, and will give some advice about working and playing outside whilst managing OFG.
Key points to remember:
1) Being outside is good for you. It’s important to remember that despite any concerns, there is scientific evidence that being outside for a portion of every day improves mental health (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8654350.stm , and that frequently being in a ‘wild’ setting may improve autoimmune health (see http://oldfriendstheory.org/).
2) Unless you have a space-shuttle style hydroponic garden which has been sterilised to within an inch of it’s life, you’ll have that many microbes, fungi, flowers, plants, floating pollen and other substances in your garden that it will be impossible to completely eliminate benzoate & cinnamate exposure. Even a small back yard of just a few feet across will be a haven for potentially millions of bacteria and microscopic plants, animals and fungi.
3) The majority of people, adults and children alike, will be perfectly safe from any OFG reactions being caused by being outside, as long as some very basic hygiene and safety rules are followed.
For adults (both sufferers and parents):
1) Begin to teach yourself to identify the plants you see around you, both in your garden and in local wild places. Learn the names, notice their characteristics and look up any common poison or skin-irritant properties (see https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=524). It should go without saying but ensure you and your family all avoid touching any part or inhaling any scent of anything that is poisonous or irritant!
2) Do not to put ANYTHING taken from the wild into your mouth or near your face, and ensure your family stick to this rule too. If you are into wild food gathering, this could still be incorporated by checking what is available nearby and doing research about it in advance. See http://www.naturessecretlarder.co.uk/wild-food-rules.htm for more information about wild food and guidelines about gathering outdoors. Note that the most commonly gathered wild food in the UK, stinging nettles, contain cinnamic acid and histamine and would probably make OFG flare badly (seehttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3349212/). If you do gather wild food, identify it carefully, look up the Latin name and Google it along with the words ‘chemical analysis’, before you taste it – find a good scientific analysis and read it carefully to determine the chemical content.
For adult sufferers:
1) If you normally flare with skin contact (e.g. you are unable to pick up spinach leaves, strawberries, etc.) then cover up at all times when touching plants. In the wintertime this isn’t so difficult, with mittens, long coats etc. but in the summer, go for loose, long sleeved tops and lightweight cotton gardening gloves. If you flare when you use cosmetics but not when handling normally unsafe foods then you should be able to keep your skin bare, as long as you aren’t touching any of the common skin irritants to begin with. If at all unsure, wear gloves to protect your hands.
2) If cinnamate-compounds affect your breathing or trigger asthma-style reactions, be wary of strongly scented plants and strongly perfumed flowers. You may wish to speak to your GP about obtaining an inhaler to enable you to manage breathing reactions.
For child sufferers:
1) Encourage them to go outside regularly. Help them to think of wild spaces as exciting playgrounds that can be both fun and risky – many children love the thrill of ‘safe’ fear so getting them to think about being outside in this manner will raise excitement and get them to be a little more careful simultaneously.
2) Most children love getting mucky and messy, the muddier the better. There is nothing wrong with this, so don’t panic! But as a parent of an OFG child, encourage them to play with cleaner ‘messy’ things, if that makes sense, e.g. water pistols, hosepipes, rather than mud or stagnant water from the local pond. Spraying mum or dad with cold water and legging him/her up with the hosepipe will be just as fun as throwing mud pies around the garden and will be safer from an OFG perspective.
3) Encourage glove wearing. Children’s gardening gloves, both the soft cotton variety and waterproof varieties, are commonly available. If your child wants to pick flowers, collect frogspawn, or insists on making mud pies, don’t stop them but instead try and persuade them to keep their gloves on.
4) Teach respect for plants and wildlife by helping children to learn common names, learn about life cycles and learn to identify the plants around them. Encourage older children to take spotters guides out and name plants, or even photograph them, rather than touching and picking. You can get simple spotters guides aimed at young readers as well as more complex ones for older children , for example the eye spy bookshttp://www.ispymichelin.com/.
5) Teach them never to put anything they have taken from the outdoors near their face or in their mouth without checking with you first. This includes garden flowers and garden fruit/vegetables.
6) Be wary of very strongly scented plants or strongly perfumed flowers, especially if your child has asthma or breathing problems triggered by household smells or chemicals. Think about obtaining an inhaler for your child before embarking on outdoor play.
The outdoors are not just for the summer. It was once said, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing’. And for very sensitive OFG people, wintertime is easier than the summer as mittens will shield sore hands, very few if any plants are flowering or have any significant fragrance to speak of, and undergrowth in woodlands will be that sparse that you’ll have a much clearer view of where you are walking and what you are touching. So go for it!