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Navigating the tricky world of food allergies while dining out

Dining out or even dining in with a severe food allergy can be a huge challenge, to say the least. I have been navigating life with a severe pepper allergy for the last 30 years, and have just recently found out I had a hidden allergy, as well.

Let me explain.

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I have known since my mid-20s that I had an allergy to the flesh and skins of peppers — all kinds of peppers. You name the pepper — if it has a skin or flesh, I am allergic to it.

The hidden allergy that just recently revealed itself is to iodine, which is found in most shellfish, as well as a number of other foods and spices.

There are two kinds of contact that an allergic person can have with food: direct and indirect. Direct contact is when the allergic individual is personally exposed to a food that is hazardous to them. For example, for me, this would happen if I ate a green pepper. This would cause an immediate reaction for me, resulting in my throat, tongue, eyes and face beginning to swell and, after a few minutes, an inability to breathe.

When indirect contact happens, the meal an allergic person is eating comes into contact with a triggering food. An example of this would be if a chef uses the same cutting board to slice my chicken that he had just used to slice a bell pepper. Though the exposure is different, my allergic reaction would be the same.

Dealing with food allergies over the years has taught me a few things. The first thing is that you must become your own or your child's advocate, if he or she has an allergy. Never be afraid to ask questions, even if you are asking the same question over and over again.

I try to always call ahead if I know I will be going to a place I have not been before, and ask a few questions about their dishes. I ask if certain meals can be prepared without my trigger foods, and make sure to inquire about how their meats are made and what kind of spices are used in them.

When we arrive at the restaurant, the first thing I always say to my server is that I have a severe food allergy to pepper flesh and skins. I also usually have a chef card with me, which details my food allergies and the special requests I will have because of them. This alerts the server to the situation and, in most cases, he or she will be more receptive to the questions I am going to ask. If the server is uncertain about anything I am asking, I always ask for a manager. Once the manager or assistant manager is on the scene, I again explain the nature of my allergy and ask my questions. I will even ask if the sauces and side items have any kind of pepper in them.

On several occasions, I have had the chef or one of the assistant chefs come to my table to discuss my allergy with them, so that they can make sure my food is prepared in a way in which I can enjoy my dining experience.

If the person delivering my order is not the same individual who took the order or spoke with me previously, I will ask my questions over again to make sure there are no trigger foods present in or around my food. Never, ever be afraid to ask the important questions multiple times if you need to. After all, when handling food allergies, you are dealing with your own life or the life of your loved one.

Yes, there are times when I just won't be able to order something I might have wanted to try because it cannot be prepared without peppers. This is just one of those things that I must accept in life.

If you are like me and have severe food allergies that cause anaphylactic shock or worse, please be smart: Carry your EpiPens or other allergy medication with you, and let the folks you are with know where these lifesaving medications are and how to use them. Speak up when you do not know firsthand how your food is being prepared, and ask questions over and over again if you have to. Most importantly, make sure you know what dishes contain your trigger foods. Www.foodallergy.org is a wonderful resource for those of us who have food allergies but like to dine out.

Millions of Americans suffer with food allergies, so we are not alone, and more and more restaurants are beginning to recognize the importance of being aware of this, as well.

Enjoy your dining experience, and be sure to dine safely.

Terry Chaney is a Reisterstown resident and can be reached at annter95@yahoo.com.

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