I’m sure for most of us, the anticipation the holidays is tangible. Some might be looking forward to long sun-soaked days on the beach. Others might be excited about a long-awaited trip abroad. And even if you’re having a staycation, you might be looking forward to unwinding and spending quality time with friends and family.

However, if you’re suffering from allergies, you might also be facing the possibility of your holiday turning into a nightmare. This is because food allergies pose a real risk when we are travelling and rely on others for our meals. Having a plan in place to deal with any emergencies will bring some peace of mind. Here are some action items to get it in place before the holidays.

  1. Visit your doctor for a check-up

Before you hit the road, it’s is essential to ensure all your allergies – like your allergic rhinitis or asthma – are under control. If your eczema tends to flare up at the coast, make sure your doctor can help you anticipate and manage this. Ensure you get a script to have enough emergency medication throughout your trip.

  1. Update your anaphylaxis plan

During your doctor’s visit, ask your doctor if your anaphylaxis plan still is sufficient. Make sure your Epipens are not expired, that you have enough antihistamines and an inhaler all in your rescue medication bag. Refresh your memory on how to use your EpiPen.

Your doctor will also give you a letter to carry your EpiPen with you at all times. He or she can also issue you with a note to state that you must take your own food if it is necessary.

  1. Prepare for your flight

Travelling by plane has its own set of challenges, but there are some measures you can take to make your trip easier. Airlines across the world have different policies for travellers with food allergies. These policies usually are available on their websites. Still, unfortunately, the decision-makers on the ground and the health and safety policies do not always align. This is why you will need to be patient and explain the risks and needs of you or your loved one.

When you book your seat, remember to book an allergen-free meal. Some airlines will also allow preferential boarding due to your food allergy. This will give you time to get to your seat first make sure you have a plastic bag and alcohol wipes with you to wipe down the seats and the tray table, as well as the consoles to control your in-flight entertainment. Supermodel Naomi Campbell demonstrates how she cleans her seat before each flight around 2.30 minutes into this video.

  1. Don’t get lost in translation

If you are travelling abroad, make sure you have translation cards. Google Translate is wonderful until there is a problem with data or wi-fi or when that pesky battery is flat.

This online resource will assist you in setting up an example. I also advise that you keep a card ready that clearly states, “I am having a severe allergic reaction” and asks for directions to the closest facility. These cards must be made in duplicate, with one copy kept in your rescue medication container.

  1. Buffets are nice, but …

While on holiday, be mindful of buffets as they may contain allergens which were accidentally dropped or spilt into some of the foods. And even if it really looks like the food is allergen-free, remember that your fellow restaurant-goers and kitchen staff might contaminate foods by using contaminated utensils.

An à la carte option, or an allergen-free meal prepared separately is always a safer option. Make sure the food and beverage manager, as well as the chef, understands your needs before- or as soon as you arrive. This will avoid needing to tell your story at every mealtime.

  1. Avoid baked goods

Another thing to remember is that baked goods remain a risk as the allergens can be hidden without even tasting the allergen.

Gluten-free options are suitable for wheat-allergic patients, but often contain milk as well as nuts to create bulk or bind proteins in a mixture. It’s also important to remember gluten-free products are usually not always produced on-site, and the ingredient list might not be available.

Vegan options are suitable for egg and milk free diets, but reading labels remain key.

  1. Don’t trust tried and tested brands outside your home country

It often happens that brands that are safe and trusted in your home country might have different ingredients than the country you are visiting. Always go through the list of ingredients to ensure it’s safe.

  1. Have back-up snacks in place

Anticipating your meals on travel days will decrease stress. Plan ahead so that you always have ample tasty snacks. If you’re really in the dark about what you’re letting yourself in for, take along your own meals for the anticipated travel time, as well as a bit extra if there are any delays.

In conclusion

If you’re travelling and dependent on an EpiPen to counter an allergic reaction, I cannot over-emphasise the importance of ensuring you take it along. Always ensure you have one readily available.

With all this planning and understanding of any possible risks, you will be able to enjoy your holiday without the looming threat of being caught off guard. Always place the safety of you and your loved ones first. Bon, voyage!

Here’s a shortened version of your list:

  1. Book an appointment with your doctor
    1. Check allergic conditions such as rhinitis, asthma and eczema are under control.
    2. Prescription and a plan for rescue medications,
    3. Epipen prescription if needed, a refresher on Epipen use and anaphylaxis action plan.
    4. Letter from your doctor to carry medication
    5. Note if you need to take your own food on the plane.
  2. When booking a ticket for a flight
    1. inform them of food allergy to insure an allergen-free meal
    2. ask for preferential boarding.
  3. When booking catered accommodation, inform your hosts of food allergies and to discuss menu options with the chef.
  4. Visit the pharmacy:
    1. Fill all chronic prescriptions for chronic medication.
    2. Fill rescue medication prescription as well as any over the counter medication.
    3. Alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer.
  5. Translation cards.
    1. Stating allergens that you are allergic to
    2. Asking for assistance to the nearest medical facility.
  6. At your hotel:
    1. Inform the chef and food and beverage manager of your dietary requirements.
    2. Speak to the chef about contamination in the kitchen pans, grills etc.
    3. Be aware of contamination at buffets.
  7. Be aware:
    1. Read labels as trusted foods might have different ingredients in different countries
    2. Baked goods can be contaminated, nuts are much loved in Christmas confectionaries.
    3. Gluten-free products may contain other allergens.
    4. Vegan options can be safe for egg and milk allergic patients unless they are contaminated.
  8. Plan ahead:
    1. Pack extra tasty snacks and meals for travel days in case no allergen-free meals are available.
    2. Take one or two containers to store food easily.
  • The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of allergies  and the treatment options that are available for it. This article should by no means be used, or viewed, as a primary source for medical or other professional advice – please arrange for a personal consultation with your medical practitioner before taking any decisions that could affect the wellbeing of you or your loved ones. Read our medical disclaimer for more information.

Marinda McDonald

Dr Marinda McDonald has offered specialised treatments for allergies for most of her professional career. Read more about her on the home page of this website (allergydoc.co.za).