Saturday, January 30, 2010

Travel and Food Allergies

I read an article the other day about travel and food allergies. According to a study conducted by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, 90% of food allergic families have not traveled outside of the US due to issues surrounding medical care and unfamiliar foods. I think this is so unfortunate.

There are a number of resources available to food allergic persons that make international travel more manageable and safe. Yes, there is going to be more work and preparation for the food allergic family. More research and perhaps luggage. But there are so many viable options for international travel.

For the newbie to international travel with food allergies, Europe is a great place to start. Good command of the English language, excellent health care (that you will not have to pay for) and an understanding of food allergies abound in many countries. I doubt that a vacation to England will be fraught with potential minefields, at least not any more than a trip to visit grandma or your buddy from college. There won't be language issues, the society is familiar with food allergies, packaged food is labeled with potential allergens, and the medical care is excellent. If the long airplane ride or the thought of being an ocean away from the US scares you, start out with Canada, then you can take comfort in the fact that you can be airlifted back to the US in no time.

Although I would not recommend a trip to a less developed country (in terms of infrastructure and medical care) for the novice traveler, especially one with a history of anaphylaxis, you would be surprised how easy it can be. The primary reason for this is that foods are generally prepared fresh daily. It is easy to eliminate potential allergens when you know what goes into everything. Go to the market. Purchase the fresh food. Cook it. Enjoy.

Of course, there are a few things that will make a trip for the food allergic family less stressful. Here are my suggestions:

1) Stay in a hotel where the rooms/suites have kitchens, or rent an apartment or guesthouse for the duration of your trip. This way you can prepare most of your meals, and you don't have to deal with the hassle of asking questions and fretting about cross-contamination at every meal. And renting an apartment of guesthouse often works out cheaper than a hotel for a family or a group of friends.

2) Get a card printed that lists your food allergies in the language of the country you will be visiting. For some examples check out SelectWisely. Be sure to give the card to waiters, restaurant managers, friends, and others that will prepare or come into contact with your food. In restaurants, insist that the card is shown to the chef. If it's feasible, learn how to say a few phrases, like "I have a life-threatening allergy to peanuts" in the language(s) of the place(s) you will be visiting. If you have multiple allergies, talior your phrase to meet your needs. I have learned how to say "My son can not eat that, he has food allergies" in many languages.

3) Do your research! Depending on your allergy, some countries will be more difficult than others for you. If you are just venturing into the world of travel with food allergies, avoid going to countries where your allergen is a diet staple. You can always go on your next trip. For example, if you are allergic to soy, China might not be your best choice for a first trip. Also, try to find out in advance if there are local restaurants and grocery stores that are food allergy friendly, or will make your life easier (i.e. Vegan if you have a dairy allergy). A little more research before you go makes for a better trip once you arrive. Find out where the local hospital is, and if it is equipped to handle a life threatening reaction. If it isn't find out how far you would have to go, or stay in a different area. The internet has a lot of resources, so look for information that is specific to your allergy and destination. Or simply type in "food allergy" and "travel" and go from there.

4) Prepare. Order a special meal or bring your own food for the journey, pack extra allergy medication, make sure your epinephrine auto-injectors and inhalers are in good working order, get doctors notes for medication and food (especially liquids) to make going through security checks and customs easier. Put a few things in your carry on and checked bags to "hold you over", just in case. Something that you enjoy eating, but does not require refrigeration or cooking. For example, I always have one or two extra containers of shelf-stable soy milk, instant oatmeal and some fruit bars for my son. If we are unable to get to the store as soon as we arrive, or something unexpected happens, like a flight delay or cancellation, he will not be hungry and I don't have the added stress of finding something safe for him to eat. We have only had to my "emergency stash" once so far, but every slightly heavier carry-on was worth that one time of being able to sit in an airport, pour milk into oatmeal, stir and feed my son, stress-free. If you are adult with food allergies, you might want to bring along a medical release form. It authorizes others to administer life saving medication in case of a severe reaction. And don't forget your medical ID.

5) Don't be embarrassed! You know how to handle your food allergies, and you are responsible for keeping yourself safe. The same things that you do at home usually apply wherever you go. Don't be afraid to talk to airline staff about special meals, snacks and accomidations. For example, if you have a severe allergy, you might want to board early so that you can wipe down your seat area without delaying the boarding process. Call the airline and hotel beforehand to find out if they can accommodate you. Talk to your travel companions, your waitstaff, and anyone else that needs to know about your allergies. If people are ignorant and rude, adjust your plans accordingly. Dealing with ignorance is better than dealing with a hospital trip.

6) After all of the trips to the pharmacy, phone calls, organizing medical information, packing, watching your bank balance diminish and triple checking your plans, RELAX. Enjoy your vacation! People with food allergies travel every day without having any reactions, and you can too.

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