The following is a post by our new contributor Joseph. Here he recounts how one bad cup of coffee in Vietnam spurred him to help people traveling with a food allergy safely.
If you’re like me and you grew up in the early ’90s in the UK, then you’ll understand how little support there was for people with food allergies, let alone traveling with a food allergy.
I went through my teenage years consciously taking risks while eating out. Learning to just to force a feeling of being in control, I ate normally. I had a lot of unpleasant allergic reactions along the way. These lessons taught me the hard way that I had very little control when I wasn’t preparing food myself.
Everyone has heard of food allergies before, but few understand the causes. It happens when your body’s immune system unusually overreacts to food, thinking it’s toxic to the body. Many children with allergies grow out of them, while some carry them through to adulthood. It’s also entirely possible to develop new allergies. My peanut allergy came during my twenties!
Allergic reactions can vary drastically from person to person.
The most severe allergic reaction is anaphylaxis — a life-threatening whole-body allergic reaction that can impair your breathing, cause a dramatic drop in your blood pressure, and affect your heart rate. It can be fatal and has to be treated quickly with an injection of an EpiPen.
You don’t just feel the physical pain that comes after you’ve eaten something you’re allergic to, but it’s mental anguish that plagues your mind every time before you eat – is it safe? How do you know it’s safe? Should you recheck the ingredients? It can be mentally draining and lead to anxiety.
Luckily people are coming together and doing unusual jobs in bringing awareness to this issue. And it’s no small group either, over 32 million people in the USA alone (6 million children and 26 million adults) have food allergies.
When a coffee in Vietnam almost killed me
I’m lucky my allergic reactions to eggs and peanuts reactions haven’t posed as life-threatening yet, but the reactions are severe enough that my body needs a full day to recover. With these consequences, you might expect one to learn quickly, but it’s a delicate balance to tread sometimes when you love food and want to explore new cuisines unhindered by allergies.
I was traveling through Da Nang in Vietnam and had a Cà Phê Trứng, a traditional Vietnamese coffee, at the time unknown to me it contained egg yolks.
Everyone quickly learns the intricacies of their allergies: from which foods cause a more significant reaction to cuisines that just aren’t worth the risk. For example, Asian cuisines, from Japanese and Chinese to Thai and Korean, vary in flavor but share several of the significant eight allergens as ingredients, in particular, peanuts, fish and shellfish, soy, and eggs.
With my Cà Phê Trứng, I was just about to find out that raw egg white would give me one of my worst ever reactions.
Fast forward to taking a sip and realizing something wasn’t right with the taste. I then checked with the waiter whether my egg inclination was right, and his answer filled me with that dread I knew all too well – the next 6 hours will be hell.
Depending on how much egg I ate, vomiting usually followed. It was as if this was my immune system’s way of expelling what it thought was toxic. A small sip of my Cà Phê Trứng resulted in me being sick to my stomach for hours, and the feeling of nausea afterward left me feeling exhausted and drained.
If you’ve been to Da Nang in Vietnam, then you know it’s a city that can go according to your pace. I delayed my trip to Mai Chau by another day, and this wasn’t a terrible thing. It forced me to slow down. I stopped the frantic sightseeing, taking things easy with long walks by the beach.
A quick stop at Taramind Tree restaurant served some no-frills but amazingly delicious beef pho to get my energy levels back up.
With a day to think through things and go over what had happened. I learned it’s not just foods I need to check but also what I drink.
It was never a question of blame, as ultimately, I am responsible for what I eat and drink. I’ve had many allergic reactions, but it was this particular scary episode that spurred me into action.
A hard lesson learned.
I see myself as very lucky.
I can battle through a severe allergic reaction and come through to the morning, feeling a sense of normality again. For many people, the reactions can be worse and, tragically, even fatal. While I’ve spoken to people who do a fantastic job of living with a severe food allergy, I’ve also met many people who struggle daily and are actively looking to find ways of making their lives easier.
If there is one thing I found living with two food allergies, it’s that you have little control over what goes on your plate when eating out.
That first step – the acknowledgment and understanding of your allergy by restaurant staff – is paramount. Without that, it can all go wrong, and I had many experiences in these situations. If I had gone through this, then thousands of other people with food allergies had probably too, and I didn’t need any more convincing that this needed addressing.
Traveling more responsibly when you have an allergy
Allergy translation cards exist, but they are expensive when you are traveling every year.
I also found the allergy cards were not personalized to my allergy. They also didn’t contain the phrases I wanted to communicate. Everybody’s allergy is different.
I also didn’t want to spend $8-$15 on a new card every time I went to a new country. So I arranged the translation myself. I would ask the hotel reception staff to kindly translate key phrases.
Tôi bị dị ứng với Trứng (Lòng trắng, lòng đỏ, bột trứng) rất nặng. I have a severe allergy to eggs (egg white, egg yolk, egg powder)
I would then use the translation every time I went to a restaurant for the remainder of my trip.
It was a game-changer, you can’t get more straightforward than personal allergy warnings written on a piece of paper. There was a lesser chance of miscommunication – the staff could read and understand my allergy in under 30 seconds. It gave me a huge relief. The anxiety I would typically get trying to vocalize my allergy in a foreign language was gone.
It’s essential to note that showing someone translated text of your allergy, doesn’t guarantee your food is allergen-free. It helps in getting someone to understand your medical condition. However, there any still many things out of your control when you’re not the one preparing your food.
You know your allergy better than anyone else, and only you can weigh-up that risk.
Can I change the way we travel?
If a translation of my allergy made such a difference to me, then why couldn’t other people benefit from this?
After this eureka moment, I rushed back to my hotel. There I jotted down an idea of a website and app showing different translations for every allergen. I’ve now shown enough translations for my allergy to know it has to be as simple as having a pristine piece of paper ready. This small piece of paper, however, would contain over 300 translations that you could use in any country.
This was a massive change for those of us traveling with a food allergy.
When I got to the UK, It took me a couple of weeks to hire many remote freelance translators. Then they translated hundreds of different phrases for me. There are so many from think, French, German, Japanese to all the different languages spoken in India.
I’ve gone through life believing my food allergy is specific to me. I hadn’t put much thought into how other people live with theirs.
This is what led me to want to build Allergy Abroad as a place where anyone can get free allergy translation. I’ve already had one parent email me saying they’ve used the translations to help with their children who have food allergies.
To me, that’s huge.
There is a ton of community support and information out there. You’re not alone now.
Two places I recommend are twitter, I’ve met so many people on twitter sharing support and advice for people with food allergies. If you want to seek medical help in addition to speaking to your doctor, then I highly recommend the NHS allergy section, there is a ton of useful guidance on their website.
Allergy Abroad doesn’t solve all the problems with having a food allergy. Still, if it prevents just one person from an allergic reaction unnecessarily or just gives a bit of relief from allergy anxiety, then that’s a win.
Traveling with a food allergy is a challenge, but should never hold you back from experiencing new things. How you prepare yourself and protect yourself is crucial. Try to inform yourself as much as possible, talk to other people with food allergies, speak to your doctor. It takes time. Empowering yourself with this knowledge will make it all worthwhile. When you find yourself in a cafe in Hanoi, thousands of miles away, you’ll wonder why you didn’t leave sooner.
Have a good tip on traveling with a food allergy? Let us know in the comments!