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Food allergies make it ‘drag to travel’

Amy Wicker founder President Allergy Safe Travel with her two daughters.  |  Courtesy Heidi Steger

Amy Wicker, founder and President of Allergy Safe Travel, with her two daughters. | Courtesy of Heidi Steger

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By the numbers

4.1 million have food allergies

Food allergies increased by 18 percent from 1997 to 2007, and peanut allergies almost tripled in that same time period.

Eight foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (e.g., walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans), wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Food Allergy Research and Education

What is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that affects the entire body. An anaphylactic reaction most commonly results in restricted airways and difficulty breathing or reduced blood pressure. It also can cause vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash, swelling of eyes, face or throat, confusion, loss of consciousness, and potentially death.

A person experiencing anaphylaxis should be given a dose of epinephrine, if available, and taken immediately to the emergency room. Call 911 if you are unsure of what to do.

Updated: August 25, 2013 6:22AM

Preparing a family for travel is a big task. Parents must arrange transportation and lodging. They have to see to the home they’ll leave behind. And they often need to pack luggage for multiple people. It can be a multi-day process, often requiring precision and planning.

But all of that is only a fraction of what Naperville mom Amy Wicker goes through to arrange a trip for her family. Wicker must also factor in overseeing her 8-year-old daughter’s health safety by avoiding allergens that could threaten her life. These include milk, eggs and most nuts. The about 25 to 30 hours Wicker spends preparing for a trip involve cooking foods to bring along, researching hotels, restaurants and hospitals at their destination, and all of the ordinary travel arrangements.

“It’s a drag to travel,” she says. “You do your best to control their environment as much as possible. But when you’re traveling, there are so many variables. You can’t control everything.”

For parents of children with food allergies (and their numbers are increasing every year), outings away from home are a careful balancing act of fun exploration and protection from exposure to harmful allergens. Parents must verify that the restaurants they patronize not only serve nut-free (or dairy-free, gluten-free, among others) foods, but also in some instances that restaurant kitchens do not cross-contaminate food with allergic substances. In her daughter’s case, Wicker learned that even stepping into Starbucks, where frothing machines send milk airborne, can be dangerous.

Not to mention the airlines that serve peanuts aboard their flights where the close quarters and re-circulated air make it impossible for some children to fly. These added challenges to vacation planning (and one particularly harrowing plane trip) prompted Wicker to create the organization and website Allergy Safe Travel.

“Every time I made a phone call to a hotel, I would think ‘how many other people are making this same call?’” Wicker explains. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a central depository for all this information so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time somebody wants to travel.”

Which is what she hopes her website will accomplish. The website serves families with food allergies by providing destination-specific information about businesses that have proven to be safe for those with severe allergies.

Wicker found that, with each trip her family took, she had to phone hotels to find a room with kitchen space where she could prepare allergen-free meals for her daughter. She searched out nearby grocers where she could obtain the brands and ingredients she knows are safe. She sought out information on local hospitals that could treat her daughter in case of an allergic reaction. And when she could, she located restaurants that could guarantee safe food preparation.

All of that information is collected on the website, along with regular additions from other parents who contribute their findings. Wicker hopes to add international destinations in the future.

“The idea is to have a safer trip,” Wicker explains. “It’s a resource and a tool. It doesn’t guarantee safety, but it points you in the direction of possibilities.”

Wicker also hopes to educate the public about the severity of food allergies and ways they can be sensitive to the serious health needs of those around them.

“There are two things people can do: Eat nuts at home. And wash your hands after eating,” she says. “I just want people to understand and have more empathy and compassion towards those with food allergies.”

Ultimately for Wicker though, it comes back to her role as a mom and her desires for her children and others like them.

“I want my children to be independent. And I want my daughter to have the confidence that there are people out there to help her stay safe.”

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