Living with allergies can be complicated and make traveling scary. They can turn something like a simple meal out into gambling with your health. Allergies are so common nowadays that everyone knows someone with some kind of serious allergy, and if you don’t, they probably just haven’t told you. Regardless of how minor or serious your allergy, they all can have a huge impact on your travel. I don’t let mine stop me from getting out there and seeing the world, but I do use a fair amount of caution.
I have a moderate shellfish allergy, a bee sting and poison ivy sensitivity, and a couple other minor allergies. While I have been fairly fortunate, I have had a couple mishaps. I’ve had a couple situations where some kind of shellfish was either in a sauce or had touched my food and that made me very ill for about a day while traveling and I had a situation at home where I got poison ivy and my face swelled up so badly that I couldn’t open one of my eyes. I used to travel bracing for these kind of scenarios and it took a bit of the fun out of it, but now I have a plan that may not be fool-proof, but keeps me much safer.
If your allergy is life threatening this may not be enough, so please use your judgment. The techniques below are what I have come up with over the years, through trial and error. I would love to hear your stories and your own strategies for dealing with allergies in the comments below.
#1 - Communication is Key
Especially when it comes to food allergies, regardless of how careful you are you will at some point have people preparing food for you in a back room where you can’t see what is going on. You need to be able to tell those people that you have an allergy and trust that they understand and respect that. For me, something like someone picking the shrimp out because they don’t think I like them is not good enough.
There are many solutions for this. There are translation apps, phrase books, and official pre-translated cards that many people use. These are good, but I prefer a visual aide. This is easier to do with some things than others, but I think it is important (if practical for your allergy) because:
I feel that pictures are more universal
Not everyone everywhere is literate
Words rely on a single language, but people you encounter may speak many different ones
My System - This was something I really didn’t have a great system for until my most recent trip to Asia. For this trip I made up my own card with simple clip art images of a skull and the things I couldn’t eat, then laminated it with packing tape, and put it in the tiny ziploc bag that I carried everywhere. When we ate somewhere I would show them and also leave it on the table visibly above my plate. This saved me a couple times in Vietnam. One thing I would do differently next time is have more than one copy. Once I handed it over and the man walked away with it (not sure if he was trying to find someone to translate or what). If a waiter takes it back in the kitchen I would like to have a backup.
#2 - Do Your Research
This was the primary method I relied on before I came up with the visual aide. I would do some basic research on the area and the food so I knew what was ok and what to avoid. If this is for plants or bees, I would look to see if they are a problem in the area and learn how to identify and avoid them. If this is for a food related allergy or sensitivity, I would research typical ingredients in the area and sometimes would make a list of safe and not safe dishes. For food this has worked 100%. The only times I have gotten in trouble is when I have gone off-script and tried something. The problem is it is almost impossible to know every dish you may encounter and we like to try everything.
#3 - Be Prepared
Preparation comes in many forms. There are the obvious things like having your medications, but also things like taking preventative steps and building up immunities. Allergies come in all kinds and severities. You may want to talk to your doctor and do some research to see if there are any steps you can take to prevent an episode. Here are a few:
Bee Sting Allergy - They are not fun and may be expensive, but some people are eligible for a series of injections to build up a resistance and eliminate this allergy.
Allergy Testing - Knowing what your allergy is helps you to avoid it. If you are unsure get tested. The tests are not 100%, but they can be pretty good.
Shellfish - I read about the different types of shellfish classifications and categories before our latest trip. It turns out that many people are can be allergic to crustaceans but not mollusks, or only certain varieties. While this may not eliminate your allergy, it can open up food possibilities if you know which you have an allergy to. It turns out that I can tolerate mollusks like scallops and things like octopus, just not the creepy crawly crustaceans. (Source: Auckland Allergy & Eczema Clinic)
Environmental - If you are prone to environmental allergies you may want to take medication, even if you don’t on a regular day basis, just to insure you have a pleasant trip. Just make sure that you know the side effects and know that the medication works for you.
Bring a Snack - If you have a serious food related allergy it may be a good idea to have a backup snack. I was on a flight once where the only meal they had was something I could not eat.
Hopefully this is only last resort, but in case of an episode:
Medication - Bring medication with you because it may not be available or go by a different name. This includes EpiPens and inhalers, but also things like allergy antihistamine pills, benadryl (diphenhydramine), and topical creams. If you have severe reactions to poison ivy and are going on a backwoods trip you may want to ask your doctor about prescribing a steroid in case of an emergency.
Communication - Let the people you are traveling with know about your allergy. It may be embarrassing, but it is worth it.
Medical Attention - Know at least the emergency number to get medical attention if you need it and know how to dial it.
Travel Insurance - You may want to have a policy and understand how it works.
I hope this helps you be able to stay safe and still have fun. Being sick on a trip is no fun, so I do everything I can to mitigate that possibility, while still getting out there and experiencing things.
I welcome your feedback, stories, and tips below.