Celebratory gatherings – with family, co-workers and friends – are a time of sharing and fun. For those with food allergies, however, parties can be a stressful proposition, especially when you consider the minefield of hidden allergens in the food of (sometimes) well-meaning hosts who don’t understand food allergies. And for teenagers and young adults, many of whom engage in plenty of social activities at this time of year, navigating discussions of food allergies and eating safely can be particularly tricky.
While it’s important that others know about their food allergies, young people often don’t want to “make things into a big deal,” feel different or inconvenience others. A recent Canadian study showed that December has the highest rate of emergency department visits for anaphylaxis, likely due to the fact that people are eating out more often and the risk increases when food is prepared by others. Here are some great tips for staying safe from members of Food Allergy Canada’s youth panel:
Talk to the host
Whether a work or private party, try to speak with the person organizing the event to find out what’s on the menu and to offer your help. For catered events, speak with the food-service manager about options for you. While many people will willingly avoid having mass amounts of allergenic foods, such as shrimp or nut trays, it may be unrealistic to expect every menu item to be “free- from” all of your allergens. And remember, nobody can realistically provide a complete “guarantee.”
Offer to bring your own food if you you’re not comfortable with the options, or if a host or staff are not willing to accommodate your allergies. For pot-luck events, bring your own dish and serve yourself before others dig in. Many people with food allergies eat something before an event, just in case there are limited safe options.
Got your auto-injector? Don’t leave home without it!
Always double-check before you eat or drink that you have epinephrine with you. Studies show that a key factor in anaphylaxis fatalities is a delay in getting epinephrine or not getting it at all. An innocent oversight – such as switching purses or pants and not transferring your auto-injector – could put you at risk.
Beware of hidden allergens
They may lurk where you least expect. One of our members recalled an allergic reaction to dairy from a “Jello shot” While the host confirmed that the alcohol and Jello were free of dairy, she did not think to mention that butter was used as a release agent, so that the “shots” would slip easily out of the little cups.
Lesson learned: Stick to your own alcoholic beverage and read the labels, too. Some alcohol has tree nuts (Bombay Sapphire Gin has almonds), and liqueurs used in fancy cocktails may also be made from tree nuts, such as Frangelica (hazelnuts). Also, be wary of baked goods – though they may be free from your allergens, they might have been prepared with shared utensils or trays, increasing the risk of cross-contamination.
Pass on the handshake or kiss
Allergic reactions, such as hives, can happen through the transfer of an allergen on someone’s lips or hands. One person reported getting hives on her face after someone kissed her on the cheeks after eating shrimp. Worse reactions have happened through the transfer of an allergen during intimate kissing. While it may feel awkward, tell your date about your food allergies beforehand. To keep things light when greeting others, offer an elbow bump instead, and mention that it’s a great way of avoiding spreading colds and other germs!
Have a Designated Driver
While a DD is there to ensure that everyone gets home safely, you can also teach this person to help in an allergic reaction. Teach the DD to recognize the symptoms; explain where you keep your auto-injector and how to use it; and make sure the person knows to call 911 if you have a reaction. If everyone else is inebriated – including you – the DD may be more alert to an allergic reaction in its early stages.
While it can be frustrating when others “don’t get” your food allergies, try to stay positive. Most people will try to accommodate your needs, especially if you are reasonable and don’t use scare tactics to get what you need. Enjoy being with your friends instead of feeling down that you can’t eat something.
Make a point of sending a thank you card to those who go out of their way for you. Those two little words can go a long way towards reinforcing how others can better help those with food allergies.
Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada, www.foodallergycanada.ca.