Navigating Severe Allergies Abroad

Caroline, a junior at Trinity College, studied abroad at DIS Copenhagen in Spring 2020. Hear her advice on navigating severe food allergies abroad:

When I was in fifth grade, I was diagnosed with food allergies, specifically tree nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, and more. At first, my allergy had very little impact on my life – but when I got to college, I started to get very severe reactions. Over the course of my second semester sophomore year, I had five allergic reactions that sent me to the hospital. Now, I know I have to be extra careful about my food intake.

Naturally, preparing for my semester at DIS Copenhagen included a lot of planning! Here’s how I prepared, my reflections since settling in to Denmark, and some tips for relieving anxiety about allergies during a semester abroad.

Pre-Departure: Planning and Packing

Preparing to study abroad seemed like any other trip that I pack for: accounting for my allergies and making extensive packing lists. For the weeks leading up to my departure to Copenhagen, I spent hours running around my town, calling doctors’ offices and making trips to CVS Pharmacy. As I was going to be in another country for four months, I wanted an extensive amount of products to hold me over until I could find alternatives.

To prepare, I brought all of the essentials: My carry-on bag looked like an aisle in CVS or Walgreens with 6 Epinephrine pens, a pack of Benadryl, Zrytec, and print outs of various “No Nuts Cards” that I created, listing my allergies in different languages that I could use for translations at restaurants.

To prepare, I brought all of the essentials: My carry-on bag looked like an aisle in CVS or Walgreens with 6 Epinephrine pens, a pack of Benadryl, Zrytec, and print outs of various “No Nuts Cards” that I created, listing my allergies in different languages that I could use for translations at restaurants.

In my opinion, traveling with an allergy is one of the most nerve-wracking things to add to an already heightened stress level. You have to trust restaurants, trust the people around you, and find safe food at grocery stores – all while navigating the language barrier, if there is one. To minimize my anxiety, I packed all my medicines (and some extras), scoured the DIS website, and researched tips online.

From Day 1, DIS has been extremely reassuring to my reservations about studying abroad with allergies. Before departing the U.S. I reached out to DIS about my situation and asked for suggestions. They informed me of their resources and extra precautions in both the housing process and in the classroom. If you are a prospective student with specific concerns about studying abroad and want to know more about how DIS can help given your specific circumstances, don’t hesitate to contact them!

Arrival: Navigating Grocery Stores

I have officially settled in and am starting to call Copenhagen home. One month in, I’ve already learned so much about navigating supermarkets and cafes, minimizing cross-contamination in my housing, and how to enjoy eating with friends (given my dietary needs).

In Copenhagen, there are many grocery stores which allow me to get food I know is safe for me to eat. What is convenient is that it seems there is a one on every corner! Downloading the Google Translate app has eased my nerves around navigating allergies abroad, particularly in grocery stores and cafes. It has been extremely useful when reviewing ingredient lists, with a camera feature that allows you to instantly translate words to English (there is even an option to scan handwriting!).

Cooking for Myself and with Others

I feel most comfortable cooking for myself, as I can decrease the risk of cross-contamination and having an allergic reaction. During my first week at DIS, I noticed that many people ate food containing nuts in the shared kitchens. I was nervous that if someone unintentionally forgot to clean their plate or didn’t clean it well enough, it could potentially result in me having an allergic reaction if I used the same plate.

I contacted my DIS Community Advisor voicing my concerns – who could not have been more understanding and helpful! We set up a meeting and talked through my allergies and restrictions, so he had a full understanding of my concerns. We then came up with an action plan for the semester. Additionally, he arranged for me to receive pots, pans, utensils, and other cookware needed for my personal use. With the support of DIS, I can now make my own food with my own cookware, minimizing the risk of cross-contamination. Speaking with my Community Advisor also gave me the confidence to share my allergy concerns with others I live with. Everyone in my program has been incredibly understanding and mindful!

In my Residential Community we host regular Hygge Dinners, organized and sponsored by DIS. Hygge is a Danish concept that loosely translates to a feeling of coziness, whether alone or with friends, at home or out. It can be where you eat and relax with friends or family and enjoy a warm atmosphere. During our first Hygge Dinner, my whole housing complex came together to cook and share a meal on our first night in Copenhagen. Our Community Advisor explained that all the Hygge Dinners are vegan, gluten free, lactose free, and aimed at zero waste. He reassured us that if we had dietary restrictions or allergies, they would be taken into account.

Learning new things with new people while studying abroad is part of the experience – so each week, different people are assigned to prep the food, set the table, cook, and create a hygge atmosphere. At the dinners, our Community Advisor and my housemates are extremely vigilant about cross-contamination when cleaning surfaces and making sure plates, cups, utensils, and other items are clean.

During every Hygge Dinner, I also ask for the ingredient list (just to give myself peace of mind), and I bring my EpiPen and Benadryl to the dinner table. So far, the food has been safe and incredibly delicious!

Eating Out

Navigating allergies while eating out has been a breeze so far. Most Danes speak English and understand the implications of having allergies.

When dining out, I pick food that is safe for me to eat and voice my concerns about my allergies, and the restaurants I’ve been to have been extremely accommodating. Even though it has been relatively easy to navigate so far, I still have reservations about eating out but I have been decreasing the risk factors in my control and taking it one day at a time.

Tips to Navigating an Allergy Abroad

If you are planning to study abroad with an allergy, here are my tips:

  • Be Proactive: Living with an anaphylactic allergy, it is imperative to teach my friends and housemates about my allergies – without avoiding all the fun that comes with sharing spaces and meals with my housemates! I have educated my friends about my restrictions and showed them where the epinephrine is. They also know the signs and symptoms of my allergy, in case they would ever need to call Emergency Services.
  • Be Prepared: When traveling with a severe allergy, you need to have three things: safe food, epinephrine/Benadryl, and the local emergency number. Being prepared eases nerves!
  • Bring Snacks: The fear of not finding safe food is always on my mind, so I have snacks that I bring to school or pack when walking around. Many of my friends get foods that have gluten, dairy, or nuts in it which I can’t eat, so I want to make sure I have food as well when we stop to relax in our new city!
  • Meal Prep: I am in class all day Monday and Thursday, so have limited time to get lunch out in the center of Copenhagen. I’ve begun meal prepping at dinnertime for my lunch for the next day, which ensures I’ll be eating food that is safe for me to eat – it can also save time and money in this fairly expensive city.

I am really happy that I am all settled in Copenhagen and able to start exploring and traveling. With one month already in the books, I cannot wait to see what the next four months brings and I am excited to learn more about the Scandinavian lifestyle and find some great (and safe) eats while abroad!

Caroline Munn is a junior at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. She is from Garden City, New York.

Graphics by DIS Student Illustrator Malini Basu

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