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Staying Safe With Food Allergies During The Holiday Season

Tips on how to stay safe during this season of festivities that often revolve around food.

There is no time of year I love more than the holiday season. I have always loved going all out on decorations, holiday parties, and traditions. But when we discovered my firstborn - as an infant at the time - had severe food allergies, we had no idea how that would change our routines and traditions. Turns out, it needed to change a lot.

Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way. Despite our best efforts based on our knowledge at the time, my son ended up in the ER on his second Thanksgiving. Lucky for us, we caught it early and he was able to go home after his observation window passed.

While I don't have the official statistics, anecdotally, it seems that the holidays tend to be a time when there is a bit of a spike in allergic reactions (according to the Fire Department in our city, whom we've had the pleasure of meeting twice now that time of year). When it happened to us, it was the sixth call our local paramedics had responded to that evening for anaphylaxis.

It's no surprise - all of these holidays have gatherings that involve large amounts of people that we don't always see on a regular basis and the gatherings revolve around food, often which is homemade.

So what can we do to stay safe around the holidays? Here are some of the tips we've learned along the way.

1. If possible, bring your own food. I know this can be especially hard during the holidays, when part of the festivities is enjoying all the special food. However, there is so much going on during that time and so many cooks in the kitchen, that unless someone has taken the extra care of specifically making sure the dish was made without any risk of cross-contamination whatsoever, it may not be worth the risk.

If it helps with the holiday spirit, the safe food you bring could be more holiday-themed. Check out our Allergy-Friendly Thanksgiving post for some recipe ideas.

2. Kindly and humbly inform the host about your food allergies. This can be difficult to do in some family settings where family members are not as receptive; however, the hope is that the person inviting you or coordinating the gathering can hopefully be sympathetic and understanding. Depending on the situation, while it may not be possible to have everyone avoid the same allergens, perhaps it can be somewhat more controlled or minimized, and at least others can try to be aware of the situation and respectful of it, so as to make sure to point out which food items are safe and which are not.

3. Be extremely prepared with your emergency kit. Before attending your events, make sure your epinephrine autoinjectors are up to date. Have your antihistamines pre-dosed out, to take any guesswork and thinking out of the situation. Make sure your asthma inhaler (and spacer) if needed are packed. For young kids with contact allergies, make sure you've stocked your disinfectant wipes and hand wipes.

3. Avoid any food that's unlabeled. This should be a general rule of thumb when it comes to food allergies, but in a family environment during a festive season, we can sometimes let our guard down and make assumptions. Just a friendly and perhaps lifesaving environment that if you aren't 110% sure of what's in the food, avoid it.

4. Stay on guard for risks of cross-contamination. If you feel you have to try some of the food at the events, again, please make sure you know exactly what is in a dish before trying it, including if the individual ingredients have any risk of cross-contamination. If the person who prepared the food item seems hesitant, nonchalant, unsure, or uninformed, best idea is to skip the dish.

5. If you have a young child who is the one with food allergies, make sure you and your partner (or any other caregiver) is always clear on who is watching them at what time. In holiday settings, there is a tendency to want to catch up with people you haven't seen in a long time. When there is more than one person responsible for the child, it can be all too easy to make the faulty assumption that the other person is watching them. It's especially important to make sure you each know exactly who is on point and on guard, with so many food landmines around you.

6. Finally, don't let your guard down. As comfortable as you may feel in your new rhythm in managing food allergies, the holidays are a time to be extra vigilant about food and your surroundings. It's easy to get too comfortable and the desire to blend in and feel normal is stronger than ever in a big gathering such as those around the holidays. Don't give in. Stay on guard, don't make exceptions when it comes to food, and stick to your own rules that you have already set for yourself in other situations.

While it can feel a little disappointing to have so many restrictions, there can be greater peace of mind knowing that you are staying safe. Staying within your bounds will offer greater freedom to enjoy the true aspects of what makes the gatherings so special - which is ultimately more about the quality time with loved ones from near and far.

Wishing everyone a happy and safe Thanksgiving.

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