Traveling with Food Allergies

Travelling with Food Allergies
How do you stay healthy during your trip if you have food allergies?

I’ve had allergies to certain foods all my life, and yet I have visited over 100 countries in my more than 50 years as a travel writer, mostly for the Fodor and Frommer guidebooks. At first, my only weapons were my wits, which taught me to speak English slowly if I did not know the native language and always to speak to whomever prepared the food. Fewer people outside English-speaking countries spoke English back then. (In the Mideast, the second language was often French or German, for instance.

Now, however, you can arm yourself with better weapons. I always carry three items with me whenever I plan to eat out, even in the USA or other English-speaking countries. They are (1) printed

Allergy Warning cards explaining what I am allergic to, in English and the appropriate foreign language; (2) an Epi-Pen with at least two vials of epinephrine; and (3) an IAMAT Directory, listing the local hospitals that are members of IAMAT.

If I am in a North American city or foreign destination where IAMAT has no listings, I research the place and write down a note with the name of the nearest hospital to the restaurant I intend to visit, and put that note in my shirt pocket, where I also place the Allergy Warning cards. (Your hotel front desk may be the easiest place to learn about hospitals where English is spoken, or where the foreign community goes.)

Sometimes, you may want to phone ahead to the restaurant and warn them about your allergy, but I usually just advise the waiter immediately on sitting down, then handing him or her my Allergy Warning card in both English and the appropriate foreign language, and ask the waitstaff to show the cards to the chef and report back to me if what I order was safe to eat. If the answer came back, “No, what you ordered is not safe,” then I would ask the chef to recommend something that was OK to eat.

My cards read: “Allergy Warning! I can be killed by eating PEANUTS, PEANUT OIL, GREEN PEAS. Please be sure the food I order does not contain any of those products.

I print my own cards in English on my computer. For correct foreign-language cards, contact Select Wisely, where I have been able to buy laminated cards in most languages. Some years back, when the company did not have the appropriate language, I would go on the Web and search, in one case finding a woman in Prague who translated short items into Czech just for pleasure, not charging anything.

I have had dozens of wait staff tell me, when I hand them the card, that they appreciate such printed advice, it being very helpful to them. (And I have sat next to, on more than one occasion, someone who will tell a waiter, verbally, that he or she was allergic to five or six different things, expecting the waiter to remember the items. I once counted a fellow diner mentioning nine different allergies!)

My allergies have grown more severe as I grew older, and I have been incorrectly advised food was safe several times, resulting in brief hospitalizations, most of them in the USA, where occasionally a few people don’t understand allergies, one fellow in Key West telling me, for instance, that “allergies are all in your head.” My scariest experience was eating from a buffet in Kunming (China), then boarding a bus for Stone Mountain, about an hour’s ride away. By the time I arrived, I could barely talk or breathe, but I found a First Aid station there, and after preliminary treatment which included using my own Epi-Pen, I was transported by ambulance back to Kunming to the Red Cross Hospital.

My best experience illustrating the usefulness of IAMAT membership was in Beijing, where a chef lied to me and my interpreter about the safety of our food, even after reading my Chinese-language (Mandarin) warning card. Back in my hotel room after a short nap, I felt my tongue and throat swelling, grabbed my IAMAT directory, took it to the front desk, and, unable to speak, pointed to the name and address of what I took to be the nearest member hospital, the Peking Union Medical College Hospital (Foreigners’ Clinic). The hotel manager sent a bellhop with me to get a cab and accompany me to the hospital where he waited until he saw that I was in good hands. I was there two days, sharing a room with an Australian prisoner handcuffed to his bed (drug smuggling) in a “special” section of the hospital. I have been a believer in IAMAT for the past 40 years, but never more so than that time!

We’d like to hear your thoughts… Tell us and other travellers what you do to prevent food allergies abroad.

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