Have Food Allergies? Still Enjoy Summer Spreads

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 21, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Summer is prime time for picnics and backyard barbecues. When you have food allergies, though, you have to be careful what you put on your plate. Aunt Edna's potato salad may be a prized family recipe, but what exactly is their secret ingredient?

Outdoor meals can spell trouble if you can't easily spot your trigger foods. You don't always know what neighbors and friends put in their potluck meals. There could be hidden nuts, dairy, wheat, eggs, or shellfish, for example. And your allergy triggers can sneak into serving dishes when serving spoons go from one bowl to the next.

But as long as you're prepared, there's no reason your allergy has to spoil your summer fun.

Keep Trouble Away

Be cautious when you're not sure about ingredients. "For folks who have food allergies, it's recommended that they not eat any food if they don't know what it contains or how it was prepared," says allergist Hemant Sharma, MD. If it's not clearly labeled, keep moving down the buffet line.

Cast a careful eye on these dishes:

Salads: Pasta and potato salads are often made with mayonnaise, which is bad if you're allergic to eggs. Green salads can be tossed with any number of allergens, such as peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, cheese, or even fake bacon bits made with wheat.

Baked Goods: Breads and buns are usually made with wheat and eggs.

Sweets: The dessert table is full of nuts, wheat, eggs, and dairy.

Sauces: Homemade marinades and dressings are built on secret ingredients such as fish oils, shellfish flavoring, soy sauce, peanut butter, and even milk.

Where There's Fire

Meat cooked on the grill sounds simple and safe enough. But Lori Enriquez, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who also has a peanut allergy and gluten intolerance, says you should be on alert.

It's often marinated in a homespun sauce, she says. Hamburger patties can be made with eggs or breadcrumbs. And processed meats can have additives.

Even if you know what's in the meat, your allergy triggers can gather in the grill. You don't know what's already been cooking, says Scott Sicherer, MD, professor of allergy and immunology at Mount Sinai Hospital. "There could be crusted cheese from a cheeseburger that is hard to see. Someone with a milk allergy could have a reaction."

BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything)

So what safety measures should you take? Enriquez suggests that you talk with your hosts and tell them about your allergies. Perhaps they can prepare special dishes and keep them separate for you. Just be sure to have this conversation ahead of time, she says, and not the day of the event.

Your best bet, she says, is to pack your own mini-picnic. Prepare a main dish that you can eat. You can bring enough to share, but set aside your portion ahead of time. And you might want to bring foil to wrap and protect your burger, steak, or hot dog on the grill.

If you have severe reactions, you should bring your own utensils. "If somebody dips their hand into the sour cream dip with dairy in it and then reaches into the pile of plastic forks, you might have a problem," Enriquez says.

And it's a good idea to clean park picnic tables with sanitizing wipes or drape them with a tablecloth, she says.

What to Do in Case of a Reaction

Careful as you may be, a stray crumb or sneaky seasoning can slip through the cracks. If so, watch out for symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as:

It's important to act quickly if you have more severe symptoms, such as:

  • Swelling of your tongue, lips, or throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Turning blue
  • Low blood pressure
  • Chest pain
  • Weak pulse
  • Confusion and weakness
  • Passing out

Any of these can be signs of signs of a dangerous reaction called anaphylaxis, especially when they happen in two or more areas of your body. It can get worse quickly, and it's potentially life-threatening. Get emergency treatment with epinephrine right away. Antihistamines can help relive itching and hives, but they shouldn't be used as the first line of defense in this situation.

That's why the most important thing you can bring to the party is your medication, Sharma says. Pack two auto-injectors of epinephrine to help reverse complications, he says. Why two? "In some reactions, there can be symptoms that don't respond to the first injection. There can also be a second wave of symptoms."

Don't hesitate to use the epinephrine auto-injector, even if you're unsure your symptoms are allergy related. There's no downside to using it, and it could save your life.

Once you've injected the medicine, you need to go to the emergency room just to be safe. So know beforehand where the nearest hospital is. Make sure that someone with you knows your trigger foods, trouble signs, and how to respond in case you pass out. It's also a good idea to carry a written action plan or wear a medical ID bracelet.

"As long as someone takes all the necessary precautions," Sharma says, "people with food allergies should be able to enjoy these summer events as much as everyone else."

WebMD Feature



Scott Sicherer, MD, professor of allergy and immunology, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York.

Hemant Sharma, MD, associate division chief of allergy and immunology, Children's National Health System, Washington, DC.

Lori Enriquez, RDN.

FDA: "Food Allergies: What You Need to Know."

Food Allergy Research & Education: "Treatment & Managing Reactions," "Symptoms."

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