I’m always excited when the summer months arrive with the promise of longer and warmer days. If you’re lucky like my family, you have a getaway out of the city, where you can retreat, take a cool dip in the lake and gather with family and friends.
We purchased our cottage in Muskoka, two hours north of Toronto, 22 years ago, one day after our first child, Julian was born. Little did we know that our life was to change significantly when he was diagnosed with food allergies a few years later. While it was daunting enough managing food allergies at home, the thought of him having an allergic reaction in lake country created a lot of anxiety in the early years. Over time, we quickly realized that managing food allergies by the lake was the same as managing at home, with some extra precautions. Here’s what has worked well for our family.
Reduce the Risk
As always when you have a food allergy, be sure to read ingredient lists carefully and watch for “may contain” warnings. Stick to foods you or your child has had before; try new foods when you’re at home, not at the cottage. Remind guests about the food allergies and double-check ingredients before preparing or serving food.
If you want to have more control, offer to make all meals yourself and ask guests to clean up. While my family was not comfortable asking guests to share food costs, we did take them up on their offer to bring wine and beer. If you’re renting or visiting someone’s cottage, clean utensils, plates, cutting boards and barbecue grills before cooking. Skip the toaster, which you cannot clean, as there could be a risk of cross-contamination of allergens in baked goods.
Download and complete an Anaphylaxis Emergency Plan (or here is FARE’s U.S. version). It includes reaction signs and symptoms, what to do in an emergency, and who to contact. Use this to teach others about your or your child’s allergies and how to use the epinephrine auto-injector. It is especially useful if your teenager is going away with friends.
Keep at least one auto-injector with you at all times and have extras on hand in case you need them in an emergency. If you own a cottage, keep one at the property in case you forget your device back home. Do not store your auto-injector in the fridge or glove compartment of a car, as extreme temperatures can damage the medicine. When on the dock or at the beach, keep your auto-injector in a shaded area in an insulated bag. When you’re on the water, carry your device in a waterproof pouch.
Know your specific location. There may be multiple country roads that feed into one lake, so post your cottage locator number (or address) and the closest intersection in a visible area such as on a fridge or a kitchen cupboard. This can help to shorten response time.
Find out the average response time for ambulance service in your area. While it’s optimal for an ambulance to transport the person having the reaction to hospital, in some cases, you or another person may need to do the driving. Have written directions to the nearest emergency facility and alternate routes in case of traffic. Call your local emergency services to learn what to do if your property is accessible by water only, such as an island cottage.
Have a back-up plan for calling emergency services, e.g. a cottage neighbour or local gas station with a pay phone. Cell phone service in lake areas may be spotty or not available, and some cottages may not have a land line.
Remind your teenager that whether hosting friends at your cottage – or visiting or renting a cottage – it’s a special time and a privilege. From his late teens, Julian has hosted many unsupervised weekends with his friends at our cottage and visited his friends’ cottages, too.
Often, to keep things simple, he and his friends share the cost of pre-packaged foods which Julian chooses, and they’ve also enjoyed some home-cooked meals made by my husband and me. At this stage, their meals are pretty basic (e.g. hot dogs, burgers), so regular meals have been less of a concern.
What worried me most about the potential for allergic reactions was the partying – and Julian had to be ultra-careful. Under the influence, teens may let their guard down when intoxicated, and not think about reading ingredients in food or alcohol. The simple act of sharing a bottle or a marijuana cigarette could cause a reaction if residue of a food allergen is passed from one person’s mouth to the bottle.
Laurie Harada is the former director of Food Allergy Canada. Visit Foodallergycanada.ca.