Many times we have no control over things in our lives. If you’re like me, sometimes you are dealt a daft immune system and an unfortunate hand of genetic codes.
Allergies suck, big time. While everyone else is outside basking in the summer sunshine, you’re sitting inside with a stuffy nose leaking like a broken faucet. And yet, no one else seems to understand the agony you’re going through or they just decide to throw you an unwanted pity party. Worse: they tag you as the allergy chick. Well, I’m here to tell you that I get it. I'm the annoying person in the restaurant who needs to dissect individual ingredients in whatever I'm ordering. I'm also the one carrying 20 types of lotions and soaps with me in case my skin suddenly decides to turn on me.
So you could say allergies and I have some bad blood. You name it—eczema, asthma, food allergies, dust allergies, pollen allergies, mold allergies, water sensitivity, even sweat allergies (yes, you can be allergic to your own sweat)—I’ve had it all. To be honest, I haven’t really let that fact dictate how I live my life, except that I generally avoid Italian restaurants like the plague.
I also try not to let all of this totally derail my love of travel, and you shouldn't either.
Although you can't ditch your allergies at home when you travel, you can take clever steps to keep them from extinguishing your getaway plans. Here are some tips on how to sideline various kinds of allergies when you're away from home.
Always relay any food allergies to the server. Some people find it discouraging eating out at restaurants when living with a food allergy. Having had food allergies for as long as I can remember, I have grown quite comfortable chatting with servers and explaining my situation to them—but not until I almost died while on vacation in Chicago when I haphazardly assumed that other people dealt with food allergies in the same way my parents did. As a disclaimer, restaurants don't typically go out of their way to avoid cross contamination. Upon checking the allergen menu and concluding that a sirloin steak seemed innocuous enough, I thought I’d be fine. Turns out, only one contaminated spatula was enough to spark the madness. Lesson learned: always notify servers of your allergy even if the dish doesn’t contain your allergens. Chances are some neighboring dish will.
Dr. Rachel Schreiber, M.D., board certified allergist/immunologist, also stresses being vigilant for exposures that can increase your level of symptoms. She told me, “If you can, try to plan ahead and you can contact those restaurants prior to visiting them. Also mention that food should be cooked with separate utensils in a separate area. The goal is to avoid eating any contaminated food.” Kitchens can get lazy with washing dishes, so make sure they know the importance of scrubbing those utensils clean.
Carry backup medications at all times. Having injectable epinephrine on hand is highly recommended if you want to avoid the have your-throat-swell-shut-and-go-into-anaphylactic-shock-and-die kind of experience. I remember when I needed to eat my entire meal with one hand on my EpiPen the first time I attempted to eat at a foreign restaurant. Granted, this is a little paranoid—but ALWAYS carry an EpiPen with you in case of a severe reaction. Better yet, pack two EpiPens.
Dr. Schreiber agrees: “The reason you always carry two pens is for two reasons: in case one malfunctions and in case you need a second dose. Try to keep your EpiPens at room temperature. Don't put your extra devices under the plane in the cargo storage area. That area gets too cold.”
For milder symptoms, a pack of Benadryl will always do the trick. Save yourself the hassle of having to hysterically search for a nearby drugstore in a foreign city—with bloated lips at that—and pack it in your purse beforehand.
Blast the A/C. If it were possible to have a feud with nature, dust and pollen would be my greatest adversaries. Running the A/C in the car can actually blow dust and mold allergens from inside the vents, setting you off into a sneezing bout that would deem you the most blessed person in the world. If you open the windows and run the A/C for 10 minutes before getting in the car, this will reduce dust fragments dramatically. Once you start driving, put the windows up and keep the A/C setting to inside circulation—you don't want to let outside allergens in.
Once you’ve arrived at your hotel, blast the A/C there also. With the air conditioning on and the windows closed, you can reduce indoor pollen exposure by more than 90 percent. According to Dr. Schreiber, “Air conditioning is key for pollen sufferers, since it really does create a barrier between the individual and the outside world. It improves the quality of the air and helps to filter out the pollen. If you are in a space that is not air conditioned, you may find your allergies are flaring, since you never have a respite from the outside world.”
For extra security, shower and change clothes if you’ve been outdoors, particularly on woods or beaches, to get rid of some of the pollen you’ve been carrying around.
Bring your own pillow. We all know if you don’t snooze, you lose, and that is why your own pillow is probably the niftiest thing you will stuff into your suitcase when traveling for any length of time. I tote my own even when visiting nicer hotels because the dunes of pillows decorating the beds can be chock-full of allergens.
Most pillows in hotels are not immune to dust mites that graze on your dead skin and hair, triggering asthma and other allergic reactions. You may want to bring plastic covers of your own or ask the hotel for hypoallergenic pillows. Dr. Schreiber also reminds us that feathers can be a trigger, so if you have a feather allergy, do not use a down pillow or bedding. Ask the hotel for non-down alternatives. Even simple steps like protecting mattresses with an allergen-proof encasing (the airtight type used to prevent bedbugs) can help. If the dry air in hotels becomes an irritant, it is often effective to fill the bathtub with water to increase the humidity in the air or you can run the shower with hot water for several minutes to generate steam. For pesky sinuses, a saline-based gel will also help to lubricate stuffy noses. Eczema sufferers fear not—hydrocortisone is a complete savior. Invest in a solid tube and carry it around with you in case of a flare-up.
Bring your own snacks. If you can, bring enough backup food to see you through at least the beginning of your trip. If you're in an area where you cannot easily purchase or order allergen-free food, stock up on your food supply. When I travelled to Quito, Ecuador, a few summers back, I nonchalantly strolled into a grocery store only to realize that I literally couldn’t read any of the labels or ingredients. Unfortunately, my dinner that day consisted of a bag of Lay's and a bottle of Snapple. If you're traveling internationally, keep in mind that food labels and restaurant menus will make just about as much sense as an advanced rocket science algorithm. Again, as backup, it's best to bring a sizeable supply of safe food with you.