An Allergy-Free Vacation: It's Possible With Planning

Last Editorial Review: 3/17/2005

Beaches and mountains are the best bet for allergy sufferers, experts say.

By Mark Moran
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

A vacationer in Puerto Rico is bitten by mosquitoes, and applies ointment from a local aloe vera plant to stop the itching. Unaware she is allergic to the substance, she applies it again shortly before returning home. By the time she arrives at the airport in the U.S., she has a bright red rash as a souvenir of her holiday.

"We treated her as if she had poison ivy," recalls allergy specialist Ira Finegold, MD. "Her skin was red and raised on her face, arms, and body, exactly in the pattern where she rubbed the aloe."

Finegold, who is chief of allergy at Roosevelt-St. Luke's Medical Center in New York, says the case illustrates how allergies can make a vacation memorable for all the wrong reasons. And it illustrates the cardinal rule of having an allergy-free vacation: know what you're allergic to, and know whether those allergens are going to be waiting for you at your travel destination.

"Allergic individuals are at risk if they don't realize what their allergic exposure is going to be," Finegold says. "This can take the form of mild sniffling and sneezing from featherbeds in Switzerland, or severe or fatal reactions to a food allergy in an enclosed environment."

"It's important to know what you are in for," agrees Barbara Levine, PhD, co-director of human nutrition at Rockefeller University and associate professor of medicine at Cornell Medical College in New York. "Allergens differ somewhat in different parts of the country. You can find out the climate and specific allergens wherever you are going ahead of time."


Plan for Seasonal Allergies

Finegold says pollen counts for many geographic regions can be found online. And people who are highly allergic to pollen will want to avoid certain areas at certain times of the year. "Late August or early September is not the best time to visit New York," he says as an example. "Come back in November."

Levine says the most important task for any kind of travel is to think ahead. "I tell my patients to have a little medical traveling kit, and to include allergy and cold remedies," she tells WebMD.

It's always wise to travel with antihistamines, and certain commercial brands are made to dissolve in the mouth without water. And Finegold says there are a variety of eye drops that can prevent and treat allergic eye reactions.

Deadly Allergies

While many allergies are a nuisance, some can be life threatening.

Finegold says that if people have very severe food allergies, their travel kit should also include Epi-Pen, a self-injectable form of epinephrine available only by prescription. "If you've eaten food you are allergic to and your throat is closing, the epinephrine may help save your life," he says.

About those long car rides to the beach and the mountains, Finegold and Levine agree: roll up the windows and turn on the air. "Be sure to use the recirculating fan, not just the vent," Finegold says. "Otherwise all you do is blow pollen into the car from outside."

More Tips for Allergy Sufferers

Their suggestions for allergic travelers are handily summarized by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, which offers the following tips for a sneeze-free vacation:

  • Know what you're allergic to, then do your homework. Check weather and pollen forecasts for your U.S. vacation choices, then plan accordingly.
  • Best bets for allergy sufferers? Head to the beach or the mountains any time of year. Ocean breezes are generally free of allergens and dust mites don't thrive at elevations above 2,500 feet. Mold spores are killed by snow.
  • If you are planning to travel abroad, check with your allergist-immunologist about any vaccinations or immunizations you might need, and make sure you get scheduled allergy shots before you leave. If you are traveling for more than a few weeks, ask your allergist to provide a treatment dose to take with you, and the name of a local allergist who can give you the shot.
  • When booking rooms, ask for a nonsmoking room with air conditioning and portable air filters (this can be difficult when traveling abroad). Also ask for wood, tile, or vinyl floors (this can be a little less difficult when traveling abroad).
  • Pack medications in their original bottles to avoid questions at customs.
  • Bring an epinephrine kit if you or a family member has food or insect sting allergies.
  • If you're traveling by car, keep your windows rolled up and use your air conditioner. Consider getting your automobile's air conditioner cleaned in advance.
  • When traveling by air, take an antihistamine in advance. Notify the airline in advance if you have food allergies, and drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol to stay hydrated.

Originally published June 27, 2001.

Medically updated March 17, 2005.

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