Category Archives: Communication

Food Allergy Travel Awareness

Happy Food Allergy Awareness Month! I think all of us “allergy folk” raise awareness without even really knowing that is what we’re doing. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in the past few years, and for this blog post I reflected on some of the ways I’ve been able to raise awareness while travelling through Europe. Here are two of my favourite experiences discussing food allergies while travelling.

The first story is from summer 2018, when I stayed in Finland for two months. I used to live in Finland, so I went back to visit some friends. I went to one friend’s parent’s house with her the first weekend I was in Finland and was pleasantly surprised to learn everyone in her family had an allergy of some sort. My friend can’t eat tree nuts and most fruits, her brother can’t eat apples, her other brother’s girlfriend can’t eat fish or dairy. Overall, her family was really educated about food allergies. I thought, great, I don’t have to work so hard here in explaining about food allergies! They had a barbecue and I ate some food I had brought with me, and we had a great night sitting by the lake behind their house.

I went back a second time, closer to the end of my trip, and we discussed food allergies some more. We ended up determining their family members have what we would call “OAS” here, or Oral Allergy Syndrome, whereas I have an IgE-mediated food allergy. We talked about the differences in our allergies and the differences in our treatments of a reaction. I learned a lot about my friend’s fruit allergies, which are actually an allergy to birch pollen that gets into the fruits during their development. I was able to teach them about my food allergies, but I also got to learn a lot about a different type of allergy that I didn’t know much about.

This second story is definitely my favourite story. I spent four days in Bergen, Norway in August, while on my Finland trip. On my first evening there, I met with an elderly American couple who were clearly lost. I gave them directions (pros of always having a valid data card when travelling!) and circled around the block, only to run into them again – still lost. I helped them find their hotel and they offered to buy me dinner as a thank you. I explained that I have a ton of food allergies and probably couldn’t eat anything at the restaurant, but I’d gladly go sit with them and get to know them more.

The wife, I learned, is a retired schoolteacher and knew a bit about allergies, as some of her former students had them. She really thought peanut allergies were “the bad allergy” and didn’t know other foods could cause equally life-threatening reactions because, as far as she knew, none of her students ever had other allergies. They were both very interested in why I was choosing not to eat at restaurants (I only eat from grocery stores when travelling), why I carried so many auto-injectors (in case I had a reaction and couldn’t find more, I brought an extra set), what my soy allergy meant compared to my peanut allergy, and what I typically eat. They were surprised to find out that soy is in so many foods in both the US and Canada, but also surprised about the variety of foods that I could still eat. I showed them the allergy menu in McDonalds and explained why it was there, and they were both shocked that even fast food restaurants had these allergen-aware menus. The wife was fascinated about the science behind what happens during a reaction.

I ended up spending a lot of time with them over my four day stay and we went to a lot of museums together. We’ve kept in touch through Facebook ever since. A few months ago, the wife commented on one of my posts saying she’s learned so much about allergies since we became friends and that I’ve made her much more empathetic towards people with all allergies. Sometimes, it’s the people you least expect to educate that end up learning the most!

– Danielle B.

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Exploring Colombia with Food Allergies

Travelling to a foreign country offers an exciting opportunity to immerse oneself in a new culture, to meet new people and to take on new adventures. Before one begins their trip, there is always research and planning that must be done.  This includes trying to foresee and account for any difficulties that may arise when navigating in a new destination. For anyone travelling with allergies, the added challenge is planning how to stay safe and avoid any food allergy reactions— while also not going hungry. My own experience planning for and travelling to the South American country of Colombia was no different.

To add some context to my planning and actual travels; my trip to Colombia was a two-and-a-half-week adventure trip that involved lodging in hostels tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains as well as trekking five days through the jungle to reach the famous site of “the Lost City”. I also spent time touring cultural hotspots including Cartagena and Medellin and finished off by exploring Colombia’s coffee plantation region. While my trip proved to be an amazing adventure that balanced hiking the great outdoors while also experiencing and learning about Colombia’s unique culture, I still had to go through certain precautions to ensure I stayed safe during my vacation!

Planning for My Trip

When preparing for a trip to any foreign location, I always extensively research the country. This includes researching the languages spoken, popular destinations and sights to see. Because of my allergies, I also always research what common food dishes are popular and what ingredients are commonly used in the country. Being allergic to wheat, eggs and peanuts, I was happy to discover when researching about Colombia that one of their popular food items is a type of corn bread called “arepas” that are naturally gluten/egg free and prepared in numerous ways. Having been to Peru last year and having fallen in love with ceviche (raw fish cooked in lime juice and spices), I was also excited to find out that Colombian styled ceviche is another very popular dish in the country. While this sort of research doesn’t eliminate the risk of encountering an allergen while travelling, I always find it helpful to be knowledgeable of a country’s food traditions before trying to navigate one of their menus.

When preparing for my five-day trek to the Lost City, I signed up with a trekking group and was able to contact the trekking company via email and ensured that they could accommodate my allergies with the food served on the trek. (I also sent two follow up emails before leaving for my trip just as an extra double check to ensure they didn’t overlook my food restrictions!)

Further preparations for my trip involved notifying the airline that I was flying with about my allergies. When travelling, I also always ensure that I have my “allergy travel cards.” These cards are the size of a business card and say in a specified language (in this case Spanish) what I am allergic to along with pictures of my allergens. I also have cards that state “I am having an allergic reaction and need to be taken to an English-speaking hospital. This is not a card I ever want to use, but crucial to have in case of emergencies! I’ve found different companies offer versions of these travel cards and can be ordered online. When planning, I also ensured that my auto-injectors were not expired and that multiple were packed.

Travelling in Colombia

When travelling in Colombia, I found that having my “allergy travel cards” was the most useful and effective way to communicate my allergies since I am not fluent in Spanish.  These cards were concise and provided a visual clue to servers about my food restrictions. It was almost amusing to see their first quizzical look on their face when I passed them my allergy card and then this look change to disbelief that I couldn’t eat all the foods listed on the card. Despite that, I found every restaurant to be quite accommodating and understanding. I also used my broken Spanish to try and order alternate food options with my usual “go-to” being some form of arepa.

For snacks on-the-go or while I was hiking, I had pre-packed granola bars that I brought from Canada or would buy bananas or avocados from local fruit stands— you would be amazed at how long an avocado stays ripe in a hiking pack!  While on my five-day trek to the Lost City, each night I stayed in hiking refuges, and having touched based with the trekking company beforehand, I had very few issues finding food that I could eat. That, combined with the size of portions that were given out, I never went hungry!

Overall, while I had to undergo some extra planning and exercise certain precautions while travelling to Colombia, I found I was still able to experience the best that this country had to offer in terms of destinations to see, activities to do and people to meet, all while staying safe and avoiding my allergens.

Feel free to comment below with your own experiences of travelling abroad and staying allergy safe as well post any questions you may have about preparing for your own travels in the future!

For more tips on travelling with food allergies, visit Food Allergy Canada’s travel section.

– Caitlyn P.

Food Allergy Awareness at the Office

In the past calendar year, I have started two new jobs in office settings. In both cases, I tried to initiate conversations about my food allergies as early as possible without overwhelming my new co-workers. Instead of providing a number of tips, I am going to share a couple of stories from my experiences and hopefully you will be able to draw lessons from them to apply to your new job.

My first new job was a fresh, new start with new co-workers after nearly 4 years at a different company. With this fresh start, I wanted to be diligent with my food allergy awareness and education. I met with the Human Resources Manager and discussed the severity of my peanut and tree nut allergy. Rather than demand an allergen-safe environment, I shared my general management strategies with her and assured her that I will practice safe eating procedures. I quickly learned at orientation that the company provided snacks and had a pantry that was always well-stocked for the employees. After meeting with the HR Manager, I read the ingredients of all provided snacks and made a mental note of which snacks were safe for me, and which were not. I then cleaned my new office cubicle (including the keyboard and mouse) with soap and water to reduce the risk of cross-contamination from previous usage. The company itself was very accommodating of my food allergy and my manager even went so far as buying only peanut/tree nut safe snacks so that I would feel more comfortable in our work space. Pretty cool eh? This experience just goes to show how something as simple as being open about your food allergy can open so many doors.

In my second new job, I took the same approach and told my new manager about my food allergies on day one. The topic came up at lunch, which was a great time to break the ice on a topic that can make some people feel quite awkward. She was luckily also very accommodating and made sure to send an email to the rest of my new team to inform them of my food allergies. The tricky part about this job is that it revolves around teaching others about good health strategies, which includes healthy eating. For the most part, tree nuts are an easy snack suggestion as they are a great source of healthy fats and nutrients. My challenge moving forward will be to ensure I implement safe food preparation practices on my own since I cannot expect everyone to avoid these snacks just for me (especially when my team and I promote tree nuts as a healthy snack!).

One take home message that I’ve learned through these experiences is that being open with an employer can be extremely beneficial to ensuring my safety, but the onus is ultimately on me to keep myself safe at the end of the day. As long as I keep my immediate working environment clean, have my auto-injectors accessible, wash my hands before eating, and let others know about my food allergy, I can feel confident that I have done all I can do to feel comfortable and focused when I am at the office.

– Dylan B.

Travel by Map: Road Trips with Food Allergies

You’ve got the perfect playlist queued full of your favourite songs. Your car is full of friends, a full tank of gas, and your destination is loaded up into your GPS. You’re ready to hit the open road and see all that this great country has to offer. Since you have a food allergy you’ve probably packed a cooler full of food and plenty of snacks to fill those long road cravings.  Planning ahead and being cautious comes with the territory of having a food allergy regardless of your location.

But, what if your car companions (and even you) want something warm, delicious and not consumed in a moving vehicle? Where do you stop and how do you tell people you’re traveling with about your food allergies? It can be a tricky subject no matter what the circumstances. Small town diners and roadside stops can be quaint, kitschy, and you can find some really great food and drinks in these mom and pop gems. With a food allergy, it can be challenging going somewhere new without planning ahead such as having the ability to research, or call and discuss your allergy with the food preparation staff. As adults with food allergies, our goal is to always be prepared and informed but sometimes on a road trip we just can’t plan our meals ahead like that on the road. So, what do we do? Ultimately, it’s up to you and whatever you feel the most comfortable with, but I personally jump between two ideas depending on various things.

One: You can bring your own food for the whole trip. Eat before or after you stop and only have drinks you’re familiar with when stopping at a restaurant. Never feel pressured or forced to eat somewhere you don’t feel comfortable. Just because everyone else is eating doesn’t mean you have to. You can still have fun and enjoy yourself without food. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment or excitement of travelling and forget to take your allergies as seriously as you do at home. Always consider your comfort level and what makes you feel safe.

Two: What if you’re swayed to try some local cuisines?  Since you don’t always know where you’re going, you can’t always make a reservation or talk to a chef in advance, but there are still some pre-emptive measures you can take. Call ahead to a few places along your route, read their menus online, or ask other food allergy travellers for their advice. Just because you don’t have a set plan, doesn’t mean you can’t map out potential safe places to eat, locations of where to buy safe snacks, etc. Take the precautions you can, prepare safe food, pack multiple auto-injectors and see what you’re comfortable with when it comes to eating in new places.  Ask the right questions and inquire about cross-contamination or any other questions you’d normally ask at any restaurant. Just because you’re in a new city or different province/state doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the same precautions that you always take.

On the road with the wind in your hair and adventure in front of you, you obviously don’t want your allergies to be a constant distraction, but they sometimes make us put up a guard, ask tough questions, and make sacrifices when we’re travelling. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time or participate in any activity, it just means we have to think and a plan a little more beforehand in order to ensure our safety.

It’s easy to feel like you’re letting your travel companions down or ruining the spontaneity of the trip by having a list of safe places to eat or having a cooler full of food. When you’re away from home and your comfort zone, it’s easy to slide into a dark place full of anxiety and worry; but you should feel confident in telling yourself and everyone around you when you don’t feel comfortable or safe. Save the spontaneous actions for a random beach visit or souvenir, not the food you’re eating. A road trip with friends is an amazing bonding experience and a wonderful way to see the small gems of the world, now get out there and explore!

– Arianne K.

Exploring What Not to Do During a Reaction

“Hey guys, can you help me figure something out?”

Four of my friends were sitting at the kitchen table and looked up from the card game to give me quizzical glances before returning their attention to the cards in their hands. Between the drinks, cigars, and fun we were having it was hard to get their attention.

“OK, let me be more clear” I said as I lifted up my t-shirt. This of course got their attention as they wondered what the heck I was going on about. “Do these look like hives on my chest?”

I’d been deliberating this very question over the past 45 minutes or so. I had a huge rash and was concerned as I’d experienced a couple anaphylactic reactions in the past.

The questioning looks from the group became concerned and sober in a flash. Suddenly everyone was deliberating like a group of experts trying to unravel a political controversy.

“Well, your skin is red but I think hives would be more raised.”

“It’s definitely hives, what else could it be?”

“It can’t be hives, we weren’t even eating!”

After a few minutes, and a clear progression of a red rash across my chest, we decided it would be prudent to act, just in case. This moment is where I think we all collectively made our biggest mistake. This is a moment I’d like to draw your attention to, because I’ve been here more than once, and I’ve messed it up more than once as well. In this moment we decided that I was probably having an allergic reaction, but we failed to act in any meaningful way.

In a panic we quickly tried to figure out who was able to drive to a hospital. This was a short conversation:

“Well, I’m drunk and I’m having the reaction, I can’t drive”

“I’m drunk too”

“Me too”

“Dammit”

And that was that. Here we decided to take a different tactic and call a nurse hotline, the kind you call to figure out if you should go to a doctor when you have a cough. The nurse seemed shocked and frustrated that I was even speaking with her.

“Take your auto-injector and get in a bloody ambulance! What the heck are you waiting for?” She even patched me through to the emergency 9-1-1 line.

By now we’d wasted close to 15 minutes on top of the 45 minutes I wasted keeping the hives to myself. This is critical time when a life-threatening reaction is upon you. This is the moment when we got the train back on track so to speak.

While one of the guys spoke to the ambulance dispatcher I took a dose from my auto-injector. My legs began to shake dramatically but it was a fair trade as my symptoms began to stabilize a little as well. This is what I should have done an hour before when I first noticed the hives. It’s also what I should have done when my friends correctly identified my hives.

We were staying at a cottage in the Muskoka area in Ontario, so the ambulance took nearly an hour to arrive. Even then the paramedics told us that they would normally have been much longer but random chance had them driving from a different district at exactly the right moment to pull onto a highway and come to us. For those keeping track this means about 2 hours passed between the appearance of my symptoms and the arrival of medical intervention.

In the end I made it to the hospital and lived to tell the story. But to be sure it is luck that allowed this, not my response.

Like many others before me, I wasted so much time deciding whether I was in danger that I, in fact, put myself in much greater danger. An important detail that I have so far left out is that this was my bachelor party! Imagine what my wife said to me when I relayed this story! You can bet it was quite the tongue lashing I received.

The moral of this story is simple: Don’t waste time.

By the time we called an ambulance I’d known about my reaction for over an hour. First, I tried to keep it to myself so that I didn’t ruin the party. Then we collectively tried to convince ourselves that everything would be just fine as it was. Finally, we made the right decision, but only after a tele-scolding from a nurse.

Like me, if you experience an allergic reaction, you are likely to experience denial. But unlike me you now have an opportunity to learn from my mistake before it happens to you. It may feel wrong at the time but the best thing you can do to save a party is come clean and deal with the reaction and ask others for help. It may feel like a bummer but imagine how your friends will feel if you wait until the reaction is much worse.

You can be smarter than I was. Prepare now for that ultimate decision, that way if it happens to you then you can act swiftly. Know the symptoms of a reaction and decide right now how you will act if you notice them.

Trust me, the party is more fun with you alive and well!

– Jason B.

Guest Blog: Treat Allergies Seriously, Even in the Movies

The community of food allergy advocates has erupted in outrage over a scene in the movie “Peter Rabbit”, released in February, 2018. In the scene, a rabbit escapes from a man who is severely allergic to blackberries by throwing his allergen at him, resulting in an anaphylactic reaction. Many viewers were concerned that kids would copy this behaviour, whether as bullies or in jest, with life-threatening consequences for those with severe food allergies. There were also questions as to why the scene had even made the cut, given its upsetting content.

As an adult, I’m grateful I don’t have to worry about a school bully capitalizing on my food allergy. However, I was sad to see how many people thought portraying an allergy and anaphylaxis like this wasn’t a big deal, or who thought viewers were being oversensitive. This reflects the struggles I’ve experienced when explaining the nature of my allergy to other adults. I always try to stress how serious it is, especially when asking for accommodation that affects those around me. Unfortunately, some interpret these requests as asking for special treatment or attention. Even worse, some ignore them altogether.

The bottom line is that allergens are a serious physical threat to those with food allergies. They should never be used as weapons or to threaten others, no matter how casually, even in a movie. Furthermore, no one who has allergies is using them for attention or special treatment. We require accommodation that may inconvenience others sometimes, but this accommodation is ultimately necessary for our safety.

Personally, I find the scene in Peter Rabbit to be in poor taste (no pun intended). However, it sparked great public discussion about food allergies and anaphylaxis that may have reached more people than the actual movie itself. Hopefully in the end this discussion will benefit people living with allergies.

  • Agnes S.

Setting the Mood: Letting your Partner know about your Food Allergies

As Valentine’s Day looms closer, it’s easy to fall under the spell of Cupid’s arrow and think of romantic nights out with someone special. Whether it’s your first or tenth date, this time of year sends butterflies fluttering around your stomach, but let’s hope it’s the nerves of a first date and not your food allergies causing a rumble in there. So, when should you tell your significant other or first date about your food allergies? When is the right time to air this tumultuous subject? The answer is as soon as possible, like, do it now… I’ll wait.

There’s no point in stalling till your inches away from your allergen, or second guessing what they ate before you go in for a kiss. Treating your food allergies like a mysterious secret waiting to be unravelled is not a good dating tool. It’s a serious topic that deserves to be mentioned upfront with honesty and confidence. If you’re anything like me, you tend to undervalue your food allergies around new people for fear of how they will react to the little inconveniences it may cause them. It’s a nasty habit I picked up in school; no one wants to be different or stand out, so I brushed off the seriousness of my allergies or neglected to tell people right away. I waited till the absolute last second causing myself serious anxiety from being near my allergens when it could have been avoided. It’s a habit I try to break every day in adulthood but unfortunately it rears its ugly head every so often.

This bad habit of ignoring the seriousness of our food allergies or hiding them under a rug should never carry over into our dating lives. It’s a subject that will inevitably come up, and chances are much like a lump under a rug: it’s going to trip you up, make you fall flat on your face and seriously ruin your day. Picture this, you’re on a date with the greatest person, you’re shy, they’re nervous, and so far, the evening has been wonderful. And then the two of you walk you up to the doors of a beautiful Thai restaurant where your date has made reservations for you. Great! The only problem is you’re extremely allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, and sesame. Uh oh, now you have go through the awkward process of telling them about your allergies, why you can’t eat there, why you didn’t tell them beforehand, etc.  To think all this could have been avoid if you were just open and honest about your food allergies.

Be confident and proud of your food allergies! After all, they are a part of you and help make you the amazing person you are! Tell them about your food allergies, how serious they are, where you can eat comfortably and anything else that makes you feel safe. It’s better to be upfront honest with them rather than misguiding in order to appear easy-going or not too picky.  Chances are they’ll understand, listen and heck, even care about your allergies and safety! And if they don’t care or try to help, they’re really not worth dating in the first place, are they? Valentine’s Day can be romantic, fun, exciting, or anything you want it to be. The butterflies in your stomach or nerves at the table should come from harmless first date jitters and attraction, not the food on your plate. Telling new people about your food allergies can be tough and even scary sometimes. But the weight you’ll feel when it’s lifted off your shoulders is immense, and it’ll leave the rest of your evening open to discussing similar interests, sharing candid smiles and enjoying one seriously romantic evening. After all, your allergies are a part of you, and you want someone to love you for who you really are.

-Arianne.K