Managing Food Allergies During the Holidays

December 23, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Bradley Pulver, M.D. contributes to topics such as Emergency Medicine.

Your social calendar may be busier than usual during December, with holiday parties filling the bulk of your weekends. If you have food allergies, you can relax and enjoy yourself at festive gatherings, as long as you don’t relax your attitude toward eating.

“People with known food allergies have to be particularly careful and attentive,” Bradley Pulver, MD, a board-certified emergency medicine physician at Ocean Medical Center and Ocean Care Center, said. “You’re in situations, at a party or event or function, where food might have been cross-contaminated in the kitchen. There’s lots of different things that can cause that to happen, so you have to be particularly careful this time of year.”

Even if you don’t have a known food allergy, you may have a reaction to something you eat at a holiday party, so it’s important to recognize signs that could indicate a problem.

The most common food allergies are:

  • Peanuts,
  • Tree nuts
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Fish and shellfish

It’s important to remember that food allergies may develop at any age. “If you don’t have any history with allergy but start to have itching and a sense of tingling of the lips and mouth or swelling of the lips, you have to be cautious and take action,” Pulver said.

Here’s how to navigate the holiday party season with food allergies in mind:

Be vigilant

Whether you’ve got a food allergy or your child needs to avoid certain ingredients, it’s crucial to find out whether foods you need to avoid are being served at the party.

Ask the host about the ingredients in everything that’s being offered before sampling anything. For pre-packaged items, ask to read the label. For homemade items, double-check that there’s no milk (or egg or peanut) in the food.

“Be specific with the host,” Pulver said. “Make sure they understand the significance of the known allergy, particularly if you had a significant reaction [before].”

If you have a severe food allergy or you aren’t comfortable risking the chance of having an allergic reaction, bring food to the party for yourself or your child; it’s a sure way to control that what’s eaten doesn’t contain the offending ingredient.

If you contribute your dish to the buffet table (rather than bringing a single serving), serve yourself first with a clean utensil, in case the dish becomes cross-contaminated when other people help themselves with a serving spoon from another dish on the table.

“Not being exposed to that allergic component is the key, and you just have to pay attention and be willing to be careful about it,” Pulver said.

Prepare for the unexpected

Always carry your EpiPen (epinephrine injection), or EpiPen Jr for kids, when you go to a holiday party, in case you accidentally ingest something that you shouldn’t.

“Even if you’ve had mild allergic reactions in the past,” Pulver said, “there’s always the potential that the next one, potentially, could be severe.”

Symptoms of a more severe reaction can include:

  • Tightness or swelling of the throat
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Uneasy feeling, agitation or inability to communicate
  • Widespread hives
  • Sudden onset of stomach pain, nausea or vomiting

“Thankfully, most allergic reactions are not that overwhelming, but they can progress,” Pulver said. “If you have a very mild reaction, you can try taking Benadryl, but as soon as you are experiencing any sense of oral symptoms or throat discomfort, swallowing or any breathing problems, you need to get to the emergency department right away.” After an allergic reaction, follow up with your primary-care physician and/or your allergist.

Just because you have an allergy doesn’t mean that you have to stop enjoying the holidays! A little preparation and caution should keep you safe and healthy.

Dr. Pulver is an emergency medicine physician who practices at Ocean Care Center and Ocean Medical Center.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.