Survival Kit: Studying Abroad With a Food Allergy

by Emma Rattenborg

There are already too many myths as to why people “can’t” study abroad, whether it be financial reasons, fear that it will delay graduation, or the idea that it won’t benefit you if you aren’t an International Studies major. If you are living with a serious food allergy or a limited diet due to health reasons, you might feel like you have one more reason to tack on the list of “why studying abroad is out of reach.” This is yet another myth that refrains people from studying abroad.

No matter if you’re allergic to milk, eggs, peanuts, blasted tree nuts, soy, wheat, or shellfish, there are ways to travel safely (and still have happy tummy, too). There are plenty of actions you can take to survive (and thrive!) with when traveling with food allergies internationally.

Doctor

1. Talk to your doctor.

First and foremost, you should talk to your doctor, or general practitioner, about your allergies and how it may affect your study abroad goals. Seeking advice from a professional is important because everyone’s allergies impact them in a different way. By getting a good understanding of what is best for you while traveling, you will be able to prepare for your trip and focus on the other important things to know before studying abroad.

2. Food customs.

Traveling with a food allergy can be intimidating, so it is important be aware of what you are putting in your body. Research the countries that you are interested in studying abroad in, and find out what ingredients are used in their local cuisine. It is important to determine if there is a high risk factor in the country you want to study in, and to find a place that will be good for you and your health!

It’s also never too early to start researching alternatives food options, either. For instance, if you’re traveling gluten free, you might be able to dig up some info on ways to exchange certain ingredients to make them edible for you. Just be sure to wipe the drool off your chin post-food research.

3. Language skills.

If you have a severe allergy, it is imperative that you are able to communicate your needs with locals. Not only should you be able to ask what ingredients are in the dishes when you go out to eat, but you should be able to explain what you are allergic to, and what an allergic reaction would involve. Further, adept language skills are handy in case of an emergency - it is vital that you know how to ask to be taken to a hospital.

If you are interested in going to a country where you do not speak the language, but have your heart set on going there, make sure to translate the pertinent information onto notecards. This will ease your ability to share your condition with the people who need to be informed of your dietary needs.

Medicine

4. Medications. 

Having sufficient amounts (if not more) of the medications you need in case of an allergic reaction is something that cannot be forgotten.

Make sure that you have an EpiPen, antihistamines, adrenaline injections, or any other medications with you at all times. It is important to be extra mindful about what you carry on your person so that you can prevent having a serious allergic reaction or food related incident.

5. Alert your program provider.

An unfortunate scenario which has a high likelihood while studying abroad with a food allergy is being served something by a local friend or contact that you must reject. Of course, you should NEVER feel bad (or embarrassed) about NOT consuming a food item because of your medical situation. But, that doesn’t make those situations any less awkward or difficult to navigate.

Be upfront with your program provider, and make sure they pass the message on to all relevant parties, whether your homestay family, your apartment roommates, the onsite director, etc. Be sure to communicate explicitly with your program provider about the severity of your allergy; if it is bad enough that it will affect the actions of your entire study abroad group, it is better that they know early on to alert the others.

6. Get travel insurance.

This is also imperative in the event that you have an allergic reaction. Those traveling without allergies should invest in health insurance, let alone travelers that do have allergies. Hospital bills are not a treasured souvenir, and can be expensive when you have to pay at cost. The quality and cost of medical care will vary greatly dependent on your study abroad destination.

Even if you take the proper health steps, study abroad emergencies can (and do) happen. This is why a suitable travel insurance plan is essential. If you happen to get sick, you’ll receive assistance locating a qualified allergist, hospital, or pharmacy. So regardless of study abroad destination or whether you are traveling with Celiac’s Disease, an intolerance to lactose, or anything in-between, one nugget of allergen-free truth remains: insurance is a necessity and can make your food-life a whole lot smoother.

7. Accommodations. 

This is an important aspect of study abroad that you should think about if you have food allergies. While homestays are one of the most common housing options while studying abroad, you need to decipher whether this is the best option considering your allergies. Some opt to get an apartment so that they can cook their own food without concern, but others choose to communicate to their host families about their dietary needs.

Friends having a toast

8. Establish a routine.

Once you have gotten more comfortable in your new city, it is okay to return to the restaurants and cafes that you know work for you. It is better to find a routine that works with your dietary needs, and stick to it, than risk having major health issues while abroad. While you should try to immerse yourself in the culture through local cuisine as much as possible, don’t risk your well-being, instead find other ways to immerse yourself! Staying healthy, and listening to your body is one of the most important parts of being abroad, whether you have allergies or not.

Bonus: A Second Helping of Tips for Traveling with Food Allergies...

...because we can’t stress enough the importance of planning ahead and taking the proper steps to ensure you can respond effectively should a reaction arise.

  • When booking your flight, notify the reservation agent of your food allergy, and request that your information be forwarded to folks like the gate agent, food service, and flight crew. Most airlines are happy to provide special meals and snacks to accommodate allergies.
  • Ask your friends and family to send you allergy-free care packages from home! Especially if you will be gone for a semester or longer, having your favorite snacks sent to you will be comforting for the heart and the belly alike.
  • It may seem dramatic, but it might be worth learning how to explain that your allergy might kill you. If you have repeatedly tried to communicate your allergy to local wait staff, etc. to no avail, this extreme might be necessary. Learn the difference between saying “I won’t eat X” and “I can’t eat X” in the foreign language.
  • Fill your besties in on your situation. If a bad reaction is a real possibility, it doesn’t hurt to have a crew who can help you. Training them on administering EpiPens (practice stabbing an orange!) or informing them where you keep your spare meds, inhaler, etc. are easy tactics to feel even more cared for and prepared for abroad.

By implementing these tips into the preparation and planning for your study abroad experience, you can better cultivate healthy habits once you are enjoying your time in your host country! Studying abroad with a food allergy is tangible, if you take these steps to make it work for you. Make your time abroad as worry free as possible so that you can focus on having the time of your life instead!