Avoiding Allergic Reactions While Eating Out on Vacation

My name is Mathew and I am allergic to all tree nuts and peanuts. I recently travelled to Cuba with my family and had a wonderful trip! The trip was a great opportunity to write a blog post as I encountered a buffet on a number of occasions and noticed many dangers that could occur for someone with food allergies when eating at a buffet. One interesting observation I made that I have noted throughout this post is that buffets are problematic, not only for people with allergies, but also for people who do not suffer from allergies.

cuba

This was my fourth time traveling to Cuba and I would most definitely consider myself a seasoned Cuba traveler. I know the ins and outs of staying safe and healthy while at a resort in the country. I often hear patrons complain about becoming ill, but I can proudly say I felt great from the moment I arrived until the moment I left as I played it safe with my food allergies. As I ate my safe meals, I couldn’t help but notice other customers visiting a buffet and noted some of the unique risks.

  1. Individual sets of tongs were used for different vessels containing different foods. These were then used to place food on a plate that already had food on it, and to push around various food items on patrons’ This poses a risk to allergy sufferers due to potential cross-contamination.
  1. Patrons used their hands to pick up food from vessels. Not only is this a serious health hazard, but the hands could have been in contact with an allergen prior to reaching into the container.
  1. Children laid both hands directly on top of plate piles and then reached for an entirely different plate. This is the same issue as in number 2.
  1. People would place food items that were on their plate back into vessels. This poses a risk of cross-contamination.
  1. People would use their plates multiple times rather than using a new plate for each new helping of food. This can be a health hazard and there is a risk of cross-contamination because the plate is potentially contaminated with allergens.

chinese food

There was no shortage of opportunity for me to be at risk of suffering from an allergic reaction.

For myself, I worked with the restaurant staff and felt comfortable with a few food stations and can share these tips:

  • I avoided all deserts. Nuts are commonly found in desserts and in the dessert section.
  • I avoided unidentifiable foods. If it is not clear what ingredients are in a dish than consuming it would be an unnecessary risk.
  • I selected food that was being cooked in front of me. If the food is cooked in front of me and it is a relatively simple dish such as grilled salmon, I consider it to be relatively safe. I can see what ingredients are included in the dish and how it is prepared. There is relatively less risk that patrons touched the food with either their hands or random tongs. I am weary of things that are cooked off site that do not have proper labelling.

At the end of the day, it’s important to ask yourself whether it’s worth trying to find safe food at a risky buffet, or whether choosing a more traditional restaurant is a better option for you.

For more information on observing at a restaurant to stay safe please refer to my post at https://whyriskit.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/asking-and-observing-when-dining-out/.

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The One Time I Did Not Ask About Nuts In a Restaurant

My name is Mathew and I am allergic to all tree nuts and peanuts. Recently I was hosting an event that I was planning on presenting at, but my time to speak was preceded by a trip to the emergency room.

I have never had an anaphylactic reaction but I do know my allergy to nuts is severe enough that ingesting small amounts of the allergen may trigger a life-threatening reaction. The event I hosted included a variety of food options that at first glance contained no nuts of any sort. On the tables there were vegetarian and non-vegetarian pizzas as well as meat and cheese trays.

Leading up to the presentation, I was somewhat nervous and wasvery focused on what I was going to say. I was somewhat hungry but I avoided food, not because of the risk of allergens, because I was very focused on my presentation. One of the people working with me handed me a slice of vegetarian pizza. I would normally ask a server, manager or owner about nuts but instead I quickly ate it and continued to work on the points I wanted to hit in my presentation. This may have been the first time I have ever forgot to ask about nuts because I was so focused on something else. Pizza, especially in a restaurant compared to a fast food chain, is a dish that one must always be careful with because of the potential for there to be nuts in pesto.

NewYorkSlice

Within a minute of finishing the pizza I felt tingling in the sides of my mouth, throat and lips. The feeling was very similar to what one would feel when they are getting their mouth frozen at the dentist. The cause quickly dawned on me. There must have been pesto on the pizza. I quickly told one of my fellow organizers that I was sure I was having a reaction and would likely have to leave for the hospital. I then found theowner to ask about nuts. The owner confirmed that therewere nuts in the pesto that was on the pizza I ate but a very minute amount. Although the reaction was not progressing very fast, I quickly had one of my co-workers drive me to the hospital emergency room because this is an experience that I have never had and did not want to take any chances.

Emergency

On my way I called my family to tell them where I was going and they said they would meet me there. Once I arrived at the hospital, I told the emergency staff of the situation and they assessed my status. I did not need immediate assistance but it was important that if I did, I was in a place that would be able to handle the reaction quickly. I had my auto-injector with me and I was ready to use it, but luckily it was not needed. The reaction did not progress any further than the minor swelling which eventually subsided after being given an antihistamine. I was grateful of my co-worker for getting me there quickly, as well as my family for coming to make sure that I was okay.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: it is critical to always ask the staff about the food you are eating at their restaurant. This is a priority above all else.

Babysitting Allergy Dilemma

Babysitting is something a lot of teens do to make a few dollars but have you ever thought about the precautions you must take when you have allergies? The worst thing to happen is to have an allergic reaction when babysitting, as you are supposed to be taking care of other people.

Here’s a few allergy safe babysitting tips. First of all, if it is your first time babysitting for a family, make sure to tell them about your allergies. That way if you are feeding the kids, the food that you are giving them can be prepared to not have any of your allergens in it.

Second, when you babysit, parents sometimes tell you that you can eat one of their snacks. If you don’t feel comfortable eating their food, it is completely reasonable to bring your own snacks.  When you get to the babysitting house, make sure that there is none of your allergens lying around. If there is, politely ask the parents to store it out of sight, and not to take it out while you are there.  

 
Here is a little story that happened to me. I always thought that babysitting wasn’t something that was affected by my allergies. When I got to this one house, the parents asked me if I could make the kids dinner and feed them one hour from then. I said okay and asked what I should make. They said I should feed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I told her I couldn’t because I was allergic to peanuts and they said they didn’t have any other food so I was going to have to make them that.

They left and I was in a panic because I did not know what to do. I called my mom who quickly brought over soy butter. I made them soy butter and jelly sandwiches. I told the kids that it was peanut butter and jelly and they seemed to have no idea that it was really soy butter. When the parents got home I told them that I didn’t feel comfortable feeding their kids if they were going to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the next time I went over, the parents luckily had something else for me to make them for dinner.

Here’s what I want you to remember from this story: it is always best to let the parents you are babysitting for know about your allergies before heading over for the first time to avoid awkward situations like this one.

Dessert Dilemma

Enjoying each other's company

I had a pretty scary encounter recently that would have been easily preventable if I had trusted my instincts and not let myself get distracted. I had been going on dates with a girl I knew from high school and she is a peanut butter fanatic. When I say fanatic, I truly mean FANATIC. She has it for breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, and dinner. So, being allergic to peanuts, this posed a huge dilemma for me. I made it very clear on the first few dates about how serious my allergy was and I avoided kissing her until I had developed a sense of trust. In the beginning, she never realized that I can’t eat foods that state “may contain peanut” or even Nutella. I can only imagine the learning curve that she was thrown into!

So let’s fast forward to the meat and potatoes of my story. I met up with her one night and the first thing I asked was, did you have any nuts today? And she said, “Nope, I went out of my way to make sure I didn’t have anything!” So, trusting this, we kissed and I thought nothing of it. Later on, she was telling me about how she was at her grandma’s and that she had an amazing blueberry crumble for dessert. That was when my first red flag creeped into vision. I get a weird feeling about any desserts, as most of them have nuts. So when I heard crumble, I was worried. But she told me she didn’t have any nuts right?! So I let it slide.

Before I left her house, she asked if I wanted any of the crumble because she brought some home and I instantly declined (it’s a habit to decline desserts, again, because I don’t trust them!) Good thing too, because when she pulled it out, what’s on top of the crumble? SLICED ALMONDS! So now I’m panicking inside and don’t want to alarm her, so I just said I had to go and when I left, I had a really bad stomach ache. I wasn’t sure if I scared myself into an anxiety attack or if I was having a real reaction, so I kept a close watch and made sure I had my auto-injector close at hand. As I started to calm myself, the stomach ache went away and I consider myself really lucky that I somehow escaped this situation unharmed. Needless to say, I now always ask her exactly what she ate that day and the day before, just to be sure I cover all my bases before moving in for the kiss. Also, to her credit, she learned from this encounter and is becoming super cautious with what she eats when she knows she will be seeing me in the next 24 hours.

Lessons Learned from an Allergic Reaction

Emergency

I am Mathew and I am allergic to all nuts. This blog post is about a close friend of mine who recently suffered an anaphylactic reaction.

On September 17, my friend left class to grab lunch. She ordered a chicken gyro from a new Greek restaurant on campus. She took the meal to go and got on a bus to commute home. When she was half way through her meal, she started experiencing symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction. Her face was swelling, her throat was itchy and she was experiencing chest and stomach pain. She did not have an auto-injector with her because she left it in her gym bag and forgot to put it in her school bag. She decided to get off the bus to find a cab. The cab driver took her to the hospital. Once she got into the emergency room, the hospital staff quickly identified that she was experiencing anaphylaxis and gave her a shot of epinephrine. She was placed in a hospital bed, hooked up to intravenous and was monitored for 8 hours before being released from the hospital. It took two days for the effects of the reaction to leave her system.

Although the story is very simple, there are three valuable lessons to be learned from this person’s experience:

1. Always ask about allergens when ordering food. As you may have noticed, she did not ask the restaurant about how they do, or do not accommodate allergies. Although what caused the reaction is not clear, it is highly likely that cross-contamination may have occurred. One can only speculate as to how the allergen got into the food but it is possible that the cross-contamination issues could have been identified if she had asked about the food before ordering it.

2. Always carry an auto-injector. As I stated above, she did not have her auto-injector with her. One must always have it with them because you never know when a reaction will occur. Kudos to her for taking it to the gym because 57% of people do not carry their auto-injector with them at the gym(1). She could have treated herself on the bus if she had the auto-injector with her.

3. Always call 911 if experiencing a reaction. It’s important you do not try to drive yourself to a hospital during a reaction. An ambulance stocks life-saving medicine and can provide timely treatment on the way to a hospital.

(1) Sampson MA, Muñoz-Furlong A, Sicherer SH: Risk-taking and coping strategies of adolescents and young adults with food allergy. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2006, 117:1440-1445.

Reasons for Food Allergy Risk-Taking

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My name is Mathew and I am allergic to all nuts and some fish.  For many years I have observed; and I have not been surprised by the fact, that people who do not suffer from severe allergies often misunderstand the risks associated with severe allergies.  Recently I have noticed; and was surprised by the fact, that some allergy sufferers themselves downplay their allergies by taking risks.  I believe that the most prevalent reasons for the risk taking behaviour of allergy sufferers are carelessness, a lack of understanding and embarrassment.

CarelessnessHotel restaurant table

From my experience, allergy sufferers can be careless when making decisions that are impacted by their allergies.  I have observed allergy sufferers who have claimed to have mild to moderate allergies, eating foods knowing that the food contained an allergen that would adversely affect them.  I asked them about their actions and the response was a very simple, “I’ll be fine”, followed by a shrug.  Although they thought their allergy was not severe, they still had a significant allergic reaction to the allergen.  Their actions may be evidence of their carelessness.  When I am with people who suffer from a known severe food allergy, I’ve noticed that they rarely ask the server about the restaurant’s policy in regards to food allergens.  I have questioned them on why they did not inquire and have received responses such as, “its fine, whatever”.  The responses may be confirmation that the individuals are careless but they may be evidence of the individual’s lack of knowledge about the risks that they are taking.

Lack of Understanding

I think the most common and dangerous reason why individuals take risks when it comes to their allergies is a lack of understanding of the risks that they are taking.  I know of people that will eat products that are labeled with, “may contain allergen X”.  I have questioned their actions and I often receive responses such as, “most of these warnings are there for legal reasons”.  Although there are laws regarding the labeling of food with allergen information, studies suggest that 7% of foods labeled with “may contain allergen X” do contain the allergen (S. Sicherer, 2007).  The fact that individuals are under the impression that the warnings are present strictly for legal reasons suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the risks being taken by some allergy sufferers.

Embarrassment

This category is relatively broad but it is important because I think every person with a severe allergy has been subject to these feelings in regards to their allergies more than once.  I know from experience that it can become quite mundane having to inquire about your allergies in a social situation when you are the only person suffering from allergies.  I often feel like I am being a bother and although I always inquire about the establishment’s policy regarding food allergies, it never is without the feeling of being the centre of attention for that brief moment.  Restaurant employees are often trained to deal with allergies but I often find myself in situations where I am inquiring with someone who does not understand allergies.  I, as most other allergy sufferers, can identify unsafe situations when non-allergy sufferers cannot.  Many people are under the impression that if they do not use an allergen in a dish then the dish is safe for an allergy sufferer.  The person who cooked the dish may insist you will be fine eating it when in reality the allergy sufferer knows they are at risk.  It is somewhat embarrassing to have to turn down the food in this situation because it may appear as if you are rejecting the food being offered to you because you are not interested in it.

It is important for readers to be aware of the reasons why allergy sufferers may act as if they do not have allergies.  If you suffer from allergies then being aware of the above information will help you change or reaffirm your behaviour.  If you do not suffer from allergies then being aware of what an allergy sufferer goes through will help you if you are ever in a situation where an allergy sufferer is making a risky decision.  Always remember, why risk it?

Anaphylaxis Canada. (2010). Research. Retrieved from http://www.whyriskit.ca/pages/en/learn/research.php#question_3