7 Tips for a Safe Holiday

How to Sail Through the Holidays without a Reaction

eating holiday waffles
Stay safe during the holidays with these tips. Robin Skjoldborg/Taxi/Getty Images

Holidays can be a stressful time for food allergic families. Not only is food a handful to navigate, when you factor in cross-contamination, hugs and kisses, and the comings and goings of friends and family far and wide, the risk of an allergic reaction can increase.

Almost half of all fatal food allergic reactions are triggered by food consumed away from home.  The primary line of prevention is avoidance of the offending food, but that’s not always easy.

If you are joining in on the party circuit, here are seven additional things to keep in mind as you enter the party season:

1. When in doubt, leave it out. If you are unfamiliar with the food offered, unable to look at an ingredient list, or unsure about preparation methods, politely decline. Stick with food items tried and true, and from known sources. Remember, many packaged and homemade holiday items are prepared with nuts, milk, egg, wheat and other allergens. In order to be certain to avoid your food allergen, you need to know what is in the food you eat.

2. Keep your hands clean (and the counters!). Anti-bacterial gels alone may not be enough to eliminate trace amounts of peanut allergen, according to a 2004 study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Researchers found that anti-bacterial gel wasn’t as effective at eliminating peanut allergen as soap and running water, or commercial wipes.

 For counter cleaning, commercial household cleaning sprays and sanitizing wipes were effective, but not dishwashing liquid and water alone.

3. Don’t be shy. Let your host know about your food allergy and inquire about the event’s menu. Offer to bring an allergen-free food contribution, such as these allergen-free holiday desserts, so you know there will be something safe to eat at the event.

4. Bring your own food. A back-up food item can help ease the awkwardness of not having food that works. When my tree nut allergic son was younger, I supplied the classroom teacher with containers of applesauce and mandarin oranges, plain crackers, and boxes of raisins, specifically to be used during those unplanned birthday parties and school celebrations.

5. Don’t get kissy. Lots of hugs and kisses go hand in hand with the holidays, but if trace amounts of allergens set you off, this could be the source. While it is unlikely a smooch will set off a life-threatening allergic reaction, getting kissed can set off a local or systemic reaction, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Researchers looked at how long peanut allergen stayed in saliva after eating 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. Eighty-seven percent of subjects had undetectable peanut allergen by one hour. However, researchers concluded that waiting several hours followed by eating a peanut-free meal was the surest approach to avoiding an allergic reaction.

6. Eat before you go. If you are unfamiliar with the host, the food, and the overall environment, it’s a safe bet to fill your belly with a safe meal or snack before you head out. It’s also helps to keep hunger at bay, and prevent overeating, something that's easy to do around the holidays.

7. Watch the alcohol. Mixed cocktails may be an allergen source, such as hazelnuts in Frangelico, almonds in amaretto, milk in Irish cream, and tree nuts used to make some brands of gin. Seasonal beer may also contain tree nuts. Cross-contamination can be problematic, too, especially at busy bars where cocktail shakers may not get a thorough rinse, garnishes (read: egg froth) and cocktail nuts are used, and messy bar counters are the rule.

Even though the holidays can be risky business, with extra attention and care you can celebrate with confidence!

What strategies do you use to stay safe during the holiday season?

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Bock SA, Muñoz-Furlong A., Sampson H. Further fatalities caused by anaphylactic reactions to food, 2001- 2006. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2007;119(4): 1016-8.

Perry TT, Conover-Walker MK, Pomes A, Chapman MD, Wood RA. Distribution of peanut allergen in the environment. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2004;113(5): 973-976.


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