Most of us look forward to vacations, a break from routine and a chance to get to know new cultures and try new foods. If you or a family member suffers from allergies, however, all that experimentation carries potential risk. But that’s no reason to stay home or let it ruin a special trip. Here are a few of my favorite “vacation survival guide” tips for allergy sufferers.
It may not be as glamorous as dining out at a fancy restaurant, but the best way to know exactly what allergens you’re ingesting is to “bring your own food.” For most allergy sufferers, this level of caution is probably not necessary, but it may be a worthwhile safety measure for those with the most severe allergies. And, no, BYOF doesn’t mean packing enough food to last an entire trip! Most vacation destinations have US-style grocery stores where you’ll be able to buy well-labeled foods to eat or prepare. If you’re especially concerned, consider a rental or suite with a kitchen so you can prepare every meal with familiar ingredients.
For many allergy sufferers, air travel is especially nerve-racking. The prospect of experiencing an allergic reaction without access to proper medical can be terrifying. But by following the BYOF tip above, you can control your situation and avoid a possible incident. If you don’t want to carry food on board, however, some airlines offer allergen-free meals. When booking your trip, check to see if your airline offers this option for your flight. If a special meal is requested, check again with the airline a few days before your departure to ensure that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. If your allergy is serious or life-threatening, it is also important to contact the airline and inform them of your risk factors; they may be able to stow emergency allergy treatment on board. Once notified, some airlines will even take extra measures to ensure that severely allergic passengers are not seated near passengers eating foods that may trigger their allergy. When it comes to potentially fatal food allergies, almost no measure is too extreme.
If you’re visiting a foreign country — or even an unfamiliar part of your home country — prepare yourself for the difference. Learn the local language, or, at the very least, know the translations for the word “allergy” as well as your food triggers. Visiting Mexico and have a peanut allergy? Make sure you know that both “mani” and “cacahuete” are Spanish for "peanut" and many mole sauces contain peanuts. Taking a trip to China? Less strict labeling and mixing policies mean you must tread carefully in restaurants, especially if you’re allergic to peanut oil. Heading to India with a dairy allergy? Make sure you plan your meals carefully: Milk is a staple ingredient in many regions of India, and ghee (clarified butter) is hidden in many dishes.
This is an important mantra for allergy sufferers in general, but it’s especially important abroad: Take responsibility for your own allergies. Never rely on someone else to manage them for you. Even children should learn how to manage their exposure to triggers as early as possible. Be sure to have a complete picture of your allergic triggers (if you haven’t been tested, do so), and be proactive: Ask the waiter to double-check that a dish doesn’t contain an allergy trigger. If you’re not sure they completely understand your poor Spanish (or whatever the local language is), triple-check! When traveling, never assume anyone is looking out for you and you’ll always be in control.
Those are my tips for a happy, safe vacation for allergy sufferers who travel. Preparation is the key: Know your allergy triggers, know the place you’re visiting and take control yourself. Food allergies shouldn’t stand in the way of a great vacation.
Dr. Maeve O’Connor is an allergist and immunologist in private practice at Allergy Asthma & Immunology Relief (AAIR) of Charlotte, North Carolina. Dr. O’Connor also serves as adjunct assistant professor in the department of public health sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and is preceptor for interns and residents in pediatrics, internal medicine and family practice in the Carolinas HealthCare System.
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