Contextualizing Vigilance

One of the crucial skills that people with food allergies (or with kids with food allergies) learn is how to be vigilant about their diet and surroundings. Vigilance can include many strategies: reading food labels to make sure processed foods don’t contain allergens or weren’t produced on shared equipment with allergens, asking chefs and home cooks questions about whether food contains allergens, and keeping a food diary to track symptoms and pinpoint unknown allergens in the diet. 

Clearly, staying vigilant can save lives and keep people healthy. It’s necessary for people with severe food allergies to avoid their allergens, and it’s great that there are so many resources out there that provide tips and education about how to do so effectively.

What follows is a very preliminary attempt to put the vigilance people with food allergies need to use to stay safe in the context of broader trends in modern medicine. I’m still working on a good definition of “vigilance” that makes sense in this broader context, for example.
As a social scientist, it’s interesting for me to think about these strategies alongside other research on the modern medical industry. There is a great deal of discussion in the scholarly literature about how monitoring one’s bodily functions and mental states is often an important part of medical treatments. Being vigilant as part of a food allergic life (or life with any other medical condition) doesn’t come naturally to anyone; it’s something that you have to learn with the help of medical professionals and others who have more experience with severe food allergies. But it’s also not a completely new way to think about health for most people in the United States today.
We’re constantly being encouraged to monitor how we feel, both physically and mentally. If you have a television, you’ve undoubtedly seen ads for medications that list a series of symptoms and then advise you to ask your doctor about whether you have a certain condition and what treatment is right for you. Such ads assume that you’re highly aware of sensations, events, and malfunctions in your body, and that you can piece these diverse experiences together into a coherent story that suggests a particular diagnosis. When you see your doctor about an illness, you have to tell her about the sensations you are experiencing, the duration of your symptoms, and where you’ve traveled or what you’ve done since beginning to feel ill. The doctor’s job is then to collect, prioritize, and interpret the data patients share about their bodies, and collect some data of their own through exams and lab tests. This job can be much more difficult when patients aren’t skilled at monitoring and talking about their bodies. 

In short, it’s important for patients to monitor themselves and find ways to describe their symptoms to their doctors; it’s important for doctors to know how to use that information to recommend treatments.

Monitoring one’s surroundings and bodily sensations, documenting or remembering them, and describing them in detail are skills that each individual develops through successive encounters with medical professionals in our culture. Putting these observations (and additional knowledge acquired while learning about a medical condition) to work to prevent illness, like food allergic people do on a daily basis when they read labels and ask chefs questions in order to avoid their allergens, requires constant vigilance. As I’ve learned more about how people with food allergies manage their condition, I’ve been thinking about how vigilance is part of this larger phenomenon of self-monitoring in modern medicine. I’m also coming to appreciate how managing food allergies requires unique skills and knowledge to make sure those efforts at vigilance are effective.

What are some of the key skills or pieces of knowledge that help you avoid your allergens? How did you learn about these things? How have they changed your approach to managing food allergies?

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