Allergy Alert: Things Are Not What They Seem Overseas

Whether you or someone in your family has a food allergy, this adds a layer of risk and vigilance to your trips abroad. This is especially so if you or your child has a very severe food allergy that could result in an anaphylactic shock reaction. And having just experienced a few harrowing adventures in the food allergy realm during my latest travels to Asia, I thought I’ll take a moment to share a few tips to help you and your family travel more safely when overseas:

Do the Basic Prep Work

  • Find out more about the destination’s culture, diet, common foods/dishes eaten and how these are prepared. This will let you know how likely you will need to avoid ordering or trying certain foods depending on the severity of you or your child’s food allergy. It may be too late if you wait till you land in a new destination with a different language.
  • Find out how to say ‘I (or my child) has a food allergy to _____ specific food’ in that language. Better yet, have a few flash cards with the text written out in the destination’s language with visuals to show the restaurant/wait staff, hotel, doctor or another other person when needed.

Inform Others

  • Inform family and friends traveling with you and also those at the destination so that they can (being likely more familiar with the destination’s language/culture) help you avoid the food allergens you need to, and help communicate with wait staff at restaurants for you.
  • Call up and tell the airline about your food restriction/food allergy especially if you will be going on a long haul or international flight. This will help ensure that the right meals are available for you or your child onboard the plane. However, you may need to give the airline at least 24 hours’ notice so that they can make adequate preparations.

Be Extra Aware

  • Don’t take foods at face value! It is easy to get complacent if you have been to a country before many times and so you think you are familiar with that culture and know what to expect. But it is important to not make any assumptions but to approach each dish objectively. For example, I have been to Taiwan at least a dozen times since my childhood. However, this trip was the first time I noticed the extent to which seafood has been added to nearly every dish in sight. At a buffet, what seems at first sight to be a seemingly innocent Chinese vegetable dish turned out to have small tiny dried shrimp added to boost its flavor. Chinese pasta or fried rice also had the tiny dried shrimp added. Then we found the stewed chicken dish (which looked like just chicken legs in a brown sauce) had dried flakes of cuttlefish mixed in to improve the look and flavor of the dish. Know that in Asia too, often many different sauces are used in food preparation including oyster sauce, fish sauce, fish paste, sesame oil, and soy sauce. So it pays to be extra careful and always ask about the ingredients in a dish if you are unsure!

Be Prepared for Slip Ups (Even with the Best Caution!)

  • Look into the health care system of the country you are visiting, and find out the location/contact information of 1-2 hospitals/food allergy clinics near where you are staying. This is especially important if the food allergy is severe in your family.
  • Bring the names and supplies of all needed in-date medications on your trip.
  • If you have these, bring copies of your food allergy action plan (also known as a food allergy anaphylaxis emergency care plan) to help guide decisions prior and during a food allergy reaction.
  • Look into your existing health insurance to see the extent that they cover overseas travel. If medical costs are not covered, then look into travel insurance options as these may cover doctor visits or hospitalizations when abroad.

Lastly, know that even with your BEST intentions and the assistance/support of friends, you may not be able to completely avoid a food allergen. This is due to issues like packaging, inadequate communication, different food labeling laws and requirements for displaying allergen information  on packagings etc. Once I was in Paris on a group trip led by a Frenchman. We told him that I wanted to avoid nuts, and he helped to communicate this with the waiter and to check that the menu item I was ordering did not contain nuts. Well, when the dish arrived, I took one bite of the greenish colored mousse covering the entrée and knew immediately that it contained pistachios!

But don’t despair and let all this spoil your upcoming vacation. Just take the precautions and make preparations as best as you can, and then go on to enjoy your traveling!




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