woman being passed loaf of bread at dinner table

These days, the challenge of hosting a holiday meal has become a standard theme on sketch comedy shows and YouTube. The meal is served, and then it turns out that one guest is vegan, another is on a keto diet, and one guest or another dislikes every food on the table!

But when a guest has food allergies, it’s no laughing matter. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, almost 5% of people in the U.S. are allergic to one or more foods, and it can truly be a matter of life and death for them. Exposed to their allergens, some experience anaphylaxis, a serious and sometimes fatal reaction. Others experience severe gastrointestinal effects, hives, itching and swelling that can mean they’ll have a far from festive holiday.

Dr. Kara Wada, an assistant professor of allergy and immunology at Ohio State University, offers some last-minute tips for people with food allergies who might be heading to a winter holiday celebration:

Educate the host about food allergies. It’s helpful to let your host know well in advance about your food allergy. Make sure they know how to read food labels. The most common food allergens – milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat – should be listed. Ask the host to save the labels of packaged foods.

Ask the host to keep cross contamination in mind. If the host is baking cookies, for instance, they should wash the cookie sheet that was used to make peanut butter cookies with hot soapy water before it’s used to bake something that is nut-free. Also, suggest using color-coded utensils so guests know which utensils go with each particular dish.

Bring a dish or snacks. Offer to bring a dish or two that you know you can eat so you’ll know at least one or two items on the menu have been safely prepared. You can eat prior to the event and bring a snack to enjoy so you can still participate in the meal.

Be cautious even about foods you recognize. In general, it’s easier to eat foods you can recognize such as fresh fruit and vegetables, pasta or meats. But even when it comes to some of these foods, read the labels to be on the safe side. Some pre-seasoned turkeys may have wheat, soy or milk in the brine or other flavorings. Some people may not realize pesto has nuts in it. There are even some cocktail mixes that are made with egg whites.

If you have an epinephrine auto-injector, make sure you bring it with you. Review how and when to use it, just in case you need it. Symptoms of an anaphylaxis reaction include throwing up, wheezing, heart racing, passing out, swelling and the sensation your throat is closing. If you use your epinephrine, it’s recommended that you go to the emergency room because the reaction could last longer than the epinephrine lasts. You need to be monitored for some time afterward and you could potentially need more treatment, which they could provide there. 

Today, most people are aware of food allergies, and most are willing to take steps to protect the health of guests. But it you have a food allergy, your experience and expertise make you the front line in keeping yourself safe and healthy while sharing the holiday festivities with friends and family.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Ask your doctor if you have questions about your food allergies and the appropriate treatment if you have been exposed to an allergen.

Source: Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, adapted by IlluminAge