Breathing in the sea

Allergies while sailing are nothing to sneeze at

Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance — such as pollen, bee venom or pet dander or a food that doesn’t cause a reaction in most people. Your immune system produces substances known as antibodies. When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as harmful, even though it isn’t. When you come into contact with the allergen, your immune system’s reaction can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways or digestive system. The severity of allergies varies from person to person and can range from minor irritation to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening emergency.

Helping yourself with the sea

Allergy suffers who live on houseboats have two powerful weapons against allergies. First, you live on the water and away from plant life. Second, your floating home is mobile. You can simply move to another port and let prevailing winds carry dust, smoke and spores away from you, or sail to a new region to avoid seasonal blooms. Swimming in salt water can help flush pollen and other allergens from your nose so if you are near a body of water all day long you can drop in the sea anytime you want or need. 

Chemicals in some sunscreens can cause contact dermatitis, an itchy red rash. This may occur only on skin that has had the most sun exposure and not everywhere sunscreen was applied. Obviously, we can’t just ditch sunscreen altogether! Instead, try to avoid oxybenzone and find sunscreens that have titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and not much else. These ingredients provide great sun protection and are much better for sensitive skin. Even with the right sunscreen, some people have allergic reactions to sun exposure. This may be the result of a medical condition or a side effect of medication (check yours to see if sun sensitivity is listed and take precautions to stay in the shade if necessary).

Food allergies do’s and don’ts

Living with severe food allergies, you learn to pay constant and special attention to what you are putting into your body (and even what you are touching). You have to be always aware of the ingredients of dishes and products that you are consuming. Otherwise, a simple dinner out, for example, can give you an anaphylactic reaction or can end at the emergency room. Good food should be an important part of sailing. Whether you are going to the boat for a weekend, a week, a month or a year. Someone has to prepare all the ingredients for your menu. The key to every meal afloat or on land is in the advance planning and provisioning. You can think that a sailing holiday is out of your options not only because of the “will my food be safe” challenge, but also because you don’t know where might be the nearest medical facility on the sea. You are right to be cautious, but before turning off a holiday offer, take a deep breath and inform yourself about sailing with food allergies. A sailing holiday can be a safe option for you! During the past decade, the tourism industry has started to pay more attention to food allergies. Many companies providing yacht charter holidays have policies to take measures against cross-contamination. 

When booking any kind of a trip you should have the opportunity to personalize every detail of your trip. You should explain the details of your food allergy, and make sure that your dietary needs will be taken seriously by the boat’s crew. Upon your request, the boat that you will be sailing in should be cleaned from any material that may cause cross-contamination by an experienced crew.

Before boarding on any kind of vessel you should probably talk to your doctor.

A lot depends on what you are allergic to and where you are going. When you go cruising you change your environment, so you may leave some allergens behind (and pick up new ones, but it usually takes some time to sensitize yourself to new allergens). 

In case of allergic reaction

On land or at sea there are periods when your allergies are under control, and there are times when they are anything but. No matter how careful you and the crew are, in case of an allergic response, precautions should be taken. In case of an allergic reaction, you should try to find out what caused the reaction and prevent further contact with the allergen. The problem may be a delayed allergic reaction; these can manifest up to 32 hours after exposure to the allergen. Try to cool any swelling of the tongue.

You should also be careful with your medications so that anyone aboard can help you if you experience any troubles. Antihistamines should be in your first aid kit. Those with severe allergies usually have an EpiPen (epinephrine auto injector) with them. In the case of anaphylactic shock, it will be necessary to put the patient into the shock position (passive leg raise), call for medical assistance immediately, and prepare to perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) on the patient.

The general health of the whole crew and the medications they use should be known to the entire crew so they can be aware of these in case there are problems. You should always include a well-equipped first aid kit on board. Also include medications for common illnesses (e.g., ear infections, colds …). If you or someone on your crew is suffering from severe allergies you should undergo a first aid course. This will limit the situations in which you have to call help which may be far away. 


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