How to Manage a Child’s Food Allergies When Traveling

More than 2 million children suffer from food allergies. For them, dining away from home is a potential minefield where a forkful of food can prove fatal. Before you pack your bags, get the facts on food allergies.

A young boy goes into anaphylactic shock at a baseball game after breathing in dust from the thousands of peanut shells littering the stadium bleachers. A teenage girl with a shellfish allergy is rushed to the hospital minutes after eating French fries prepared in the same oil used to fry shrimp. A toddler at a birthday party gasps for breath after swallowing a sliver of cake made with eggs.

When to Worry...
Though anaphylaxis can start with mild symptoms, it often progresses rapidly. Watch for: 

  • severe hives

  • severe swelling of the eyes, lips or throat

  • difficulty in breathing

  • nausea

  • vomiting

  • abdominal cramps

    Should your child exhibit any or a combination of these symptoms, go to the emergency room immediately or call 911.

  • Source: The Mayo Clinic

    Cautionary tales such as these of children having severe food-allergic reactions while on vacation are as common as they are frightening. And for good reason: More than 2 million children suffer from food allergies, reports the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), and for them travel can be a veritable minefield, with danger lurking amid every roadside dinner and makeshift concession stand. A relaxing vacation it isn’t.    

    Here we take a closer look at what sparks food allergies and how parents can help their child avoid having severe reactions when traveling. While there is no silver bullet against food allergies, with constant awareness and the proper safeguards, they can be managed effectively. Here’s how.   


    What is a Food Allergy?
    Don’t blame the food for your allergy; blame your overactive immune system. Like a protective mother hen keeping a watchful eye on her wobbling, spindly-legged chicks, the immune system is obsessive about shielding the body from harmful invaders. But while its intentions are good, the immune system isn’t always the best judge of character.


    For instance, when a flu virus enters the body, the immune system identifies it as a harmful intruder and begins to produce large amounts of specific antibodies to combat the virus. Within a couple of days, the virus is contained and the symptoms it caused—fever, sneezing, runny nose—begin to disappear. Score one for the good guys, right?


    Well, it’s not always that cut-and-dried. Some people have overprotective immune systems that mistakenly see foods, such as peanuts or milk, as harmful. Once the immune system makes this decision, it releases chemicals that it thinks will help protect the body.  Unfortunately, its miscalculations trigger a cascade of allergic symptoms that can affect a person’s breathing, heart rate, skin and digestive system.  In severe cases, a person can go into life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Food allergies, indeed, are not to be taken lightly.


    Combating Cross Contamination
    Children can be allergic to any food—even broccoli, which suits some kids just fine.  But according to FAAN, 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions are caused by just eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shell fish, soy and wheat. And while this is old news to the parents of food-allergy sufferers—who read food labels avidly and keep their kitchens clear of allergy-inducing items—these foods are staples of the American diet and can be found in most restaurant kitchens, where cross contamination is a menacing concern.

    So what is cross contamination? Basically, cross contamination occurs when bacteria spread between food, surfaces or equipment.  Let’s say, for example, you use a sharp kitchen knife to cut raw chicken on a wooden chopping board.  The bacteria from the raw chicken—known as Salmonella, the most common foodborne illness—will remain on the cutting board and the knife. Therefore, it is crucial that you wash these items thoroughly with warm, soapy water before using them to prepare other foods. Avoid cross contamination in your home with these three steps.


    • Step 1: Keep raw (uncooked chicken, beef, pork) and ready-to-eat foods (fruit, snack chips, cookies) separate.

    • Step 2: Wash countertops and equipment thoroughly with antibacterial cleaner before you start to prepare food and after they have been used with raw food.

    • Step 3: Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after touching raw food.     


    Have Food Allergies, Will Travel

    Keeping cross contamination at bay in your own kitchen, where you are the one supervising the cleaning and food handling, is relatively straightforward. But the stakes are raised dramatically when your family dines at a neighbor’s home or a restaurant, and your child’s welfare depends on the cleanliness of another person’s kitchen. After all, just one forkful of the wrong food can end in tragedy.       


    “It’s not surprising that fatal reactions to food occur most often when people eat out,” says James Li, M.D., a specialist in allergies, asthma and immunology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota“If you go out to eat or travel, there's much less information available about food than when you're buying your own groceries and carefully reading nutritional labels. When people are highly sensitive to certain foods, they really have to take precautions while traveling, to avoid foods that might contain the substance to which they're allergic.”


    So what can you do to protect your famished little road warrior? Try these expert-endorsed suggestions from the Mayo Clinic:


    • Remember: There’s no such thing as a silly question. When dining out, be sure to ask your server about food ingredients and how dishes are prepared. Some parents carry business cards explaining their child’s allergy and listing foods that could trigger a reaction. You can ask your server to deliver a card to the chef as an extra precautionary measure. For those traveling to foreign-speaking countries, have the cards translated into the appropriate language before leaving.

    •  Know before you go. Research your travel destination’s local eateries, and ask for recommendations from people who have traveled there—especially those with food allergies. Also, don’t be afraid to contact hotels and restaurants before you leave and explain your child’s food allergies. Ask them to recommend dishes, and find out what they do to combat cross contamination in the kitchen.

    • Keep your child’s allergy medication on hand. If you’re flying, stow the appropriate medicines, prescriptions and portable epinephrine injector (“epi pens”) in your carry-on luggage, where you can access them easily in case of an emergency. Because of heightened airport security, it’s a good idea to carry a note from your doctor authorizing the possession of an epi pen.

    • Call ahead. If you plan to eat on a plane, contact the airline or its caterer and make the necessary arrangements. Many airlines offer special meals for those with food allergies; just be sure to give them at least 48 hours notice.

    • Prepare your own meals. Stay in hotels or resorts offering rooms with private kitchenettes. That way you control what your child eats and how meals are prepared.

    • Wear your condition on your sleeve…or wrist. Have your child wear a bracelet or necklace listing his allergy symptoms with instructions on what to do in case of an emergency. Many people with life-threatening conditions opt for the Medic Alert network, a company that sells bracelets and necklaces bearing ID numbers and a 24-hour hot line number. If a wearer has a reaction or goes into shock and is unable to speak, those assisting the patient can call the toll-free number and obtain vital information about the person’s condition and which medications are safe to administer. For more information on Medic Alert, call (800) 432-5378, or visit

    • Look into purchasing travel medical insurance. If you plan to travel outside the United States, inquire about travel medical insurance. These plans, varying in price and structure, provide medical coverage while traveling outside your home country. Your doctor or travel agent can recommend reliable insurance providers.

    • Oh yeah, have fun! Traveling with food allergies is a challenge, but it needn’t be a storm cloud constantly looming overhead. You’ll be doing a lot of other things besides eating while on vacation, so don’t dwell on the negative. Just as long as you know what foods to avoid and are prepared for an emergency, your trip will likely be incident-free. After all, family vacations are supposed to be fun!


    *Don't miss our Special Report on Allergies for additional tips and information.