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5 Tips for Managing Your Child's Food Allergies Abroad

If you live abroad and your child has food allergies, you might be in for a wild ride!

And when I say, “Wild Ride,” I don’t mean it’s fun and fantastical like visiting Disneyland Paris. In my experience, it can be a wild ride into the unknown.

First of all, many of us traverse into the foreign country not initially knowing the language. Largely, over time, we learn the language and can manage just fine in most situations: car mechanic, dentist, doctor’s visit, school.

But, you see, all of those — minus school — are occasional visits. They are scheduled and usually for a specific purpose, taking place at a set time.

Allergies are not like the aforementioned. They are 24/7 and don’t go on holiday when you move abroad, letting you get settled in before coming back to play.

That’s why you need to be well prepared when you move to a new country for the food you will buy, the detergents you purchase, and the restaurants you visit.

My son, Maxwell, has had severe allergies since he was an infant. As I’ve been walking this allergy-momma journey abroad, I’ve learned  five things I’d like to share with you.

1. Know the words related to the allergy and this key phrase.

Try to learn the words related to the allergy by associating them with something you already know. For example, in Poland, whey is serwatka, which is similar to serwetka (napkin). Or try using a mnemonic device — anything that will help you associate the word with your child’s allergens.

If you have to, write the words down and bring them with you, that way, it’s easier to shop when you’re at the store. Do not rely on the label having your native language on it. Packaging depends on the country that produced the product or the target country consumers.

Once you know the words, shop carefully and slowly. Begin to learn the products and safe items for your child by reading and rereading the ingredients. Ask the workers at the meat counter, the cashier, or people around you to help. I have done it on multiple occasions and everyone has been extremely kind to help once I’ve shared my son has serious allergies.

If you do not speak the language, I suggest you learn at least this one phrase in the country’s language: “My son/daughter has a severe allergy to (name that allergy).” In my opinion, if there is any phrase you should learn, this should be it. It may help you tremendously as you maneuver shopping abroad for your child.

2. Do not necessarily buy fresh breads.

Yes. Fresh is often best and healthier. But unless you know the ingredients in it, try and avoid any item that does not allow you to read the label. It is better to be safe than sorry.

3. Be cautious at cafes.

Even though most food in Europe is gloriously fresh and made that day, it does not mean it is safe for an allergy child. Most cafes, especially in Europe, cook with butter or milk. If you are certain there are foods your child can eat, then order those when you go out (be aware that a shared skillet or spatula can also be used in the kitchen with your child’s allergen on it). Otherwise, I suggest you go to the cafe with a packed lunch for your child.

I’ve found I can ask for french fries or pasta or fresh fruit for my son at cafes. I make sure to tell them that he has severe allergies, and they do an excellent job accommodating his needs.

In the end, even a cafe is a risk. Eat carefully.

4. School may have to wait.

If your child is young like mine, and you’re interested in him/her attending a preschool, please look for one that is sensitive to kids with allergies. Understand that your child, when not in your physical presence, can be in danger, and you will need to proceed very carefully when looking to place your child in the care of someone else.

In Poland, I’ve been told there are many schools that do a good job taking care of children with food allergies. This is great to hear. I will not, however, send my son to school until kindergarten (which is 6 years of age). Understanding that he’s at risk from eating foods and touching foods that hurt him is a big responsibility. It’s a big responsibility for the teachers and the other students in class. Most young children might not understand the chocolate — especially Nutella — on their sticky fingers can hurt another kid.

If you would really like to send your child to school before 6 years of age, yet he/she has food allergies, then visit different schools and explain your situation. If you find a school is assuring and leaves you with peace in your heart, you may choose to send your child.

In any case, as parents, we realize there will come a day when we have to let go. When you do, make sure your child is properly prepared to avoid all foods that hurt, and only send your child to a school that is prepared to diligently protect your child.

5. Know emergency numbers and have life-saving medications available.

Across Europe, 1-1-2 is the emergency number. This is a number that is a must-teach to your child and your other children in the home. They need to know if there is a life-threatening situation and your allergy child needs help, they must pick up the phone and dial 1-1-2. This also means your children need to know their home address and how to pronounce it properly.

On top of that, be prepared with the medicine you need to help your child before you move abroad. EpiPen? Inhaler? Antihistamine? What medications does your doctor ask you to keep on hand?

If you run out of those while living abroad, make sure you go to the nearest pharmacy, bringing your empty bottle with you (for antihistamine) so they can help you find a similar replacement (having the bottle is helpful if the pharmacist does not speak your language).

Otherwise, call a doctor right away and let them know you need a refill or a new EpiPen (they expire within a year). Most doctors can get you in a very timely manner for a new inhaler or EpiPen prescription. But try to keep ahead of the expiration, that way you will not find yourself in an emergency situation without the proper medication at home, especially a home in a foreign country.

Raising a child with allergies abroad can present challenges at times, but being aware, educated and on top of it can help.

Follow this journey on Allergy to the Max!

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