Coping With Severe Allergies on Campus
For many students going to college for the first time, the biggest worries are getting to class on time and making new friends. But those students with severe allergies also have to consider how to avoid life-threatening allergic reactions.
This may be particularly daunting for students who may be living on their own and responsible for managing their allergies by themselves for the first time.
"College students are exposed to so many potential triggers between the dining halls and dorms," says Neeta Ogden, MD, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist in New York City and a spokeswoman for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. And she says that finding the right solution can be tricky because students don't want to be treated differently because of their allergies.
To prevent feeling isolated or overwhelmed by managing allergies on their own, there are a number of steps young adults with severe allergies can take to empower themselves. This checklist can help them prepare for life away from home.
1. Take control while still at home.
Parents should turn the reins over to their children and make them responsible for reading food labels, taking their medication, and monitoring symptoms while the kids are still living at home. Dr. Ogden says this process should start long before the first day of college. "Parents who wait until their child is leaving for college are doing their child a disservice," she says.
2. Get on the admin's radar.
Even before a student leaves for campus, contact the school's office of disabilities to let the staff know about the student’s allergies and provide any documentation that might be required. It's also a good idea for students to contact the dean, food services director, and other campus officials who can help develop a plan to reduce the risk for exposure to allergens.
3. Find local doctors.
It's important for students to connect with a doctor and an allergist near campus and share their medical history in advance. "Any allergist would be more than happy to speak to another allergist in a college town, particularly if the possibility of anaphylaxis is involved," Ogden says.
4. Consider healthier housing and dining options.
"Find out if students are required to live on campus and eat in the dining halls," Ogden says. Rather than live in a dorm with communal living areas, students with severe allergies might be allowed to live in an apartment on or off campus, giving them more control over allergens in their environment. Students should also ask whether they are allowed to cook their own meals rather than purchase a meal plan.
Students should find out how they can confirm the ingredients in the foods served on campus and try to avoid the cafeteria's busiest meal times, when exposure to an allergen may be more likely to occur.
Also, students can ask about any special accommodations the school may provide for people with allergies, such as peanut-free dining halls. Some colleges do not allow freshmen to park cars on campus, so find out whether there's an exemption for students with severe allergies who need greater access to off-campus resources.
5. Get the lay of the land.
Learning where to find allergy-friendly restaurants and health food stores as well as the nearest hospital and other local resources can help students gain some control in a new environment. When healthy choices are easier and more accessible, students with allergies may feel less pressure and anxiety. This process should begin long before students show up on campus. "Start exploring the area around campus in June and July," Ogden advises.
6. Prepare for the unexpected.
Students with severe allergies should always wear some form of emergency medical identification, like a bracelet. They should also carry their insurance card, emergency allergy action plan, and a prefilled epinephrine auto-injector that is used to treat anaphylaxis.
7. Don't keep secrets.
Students should not hesitate to tell friends, roommates, professors, and other supervisors about their allergies and how to recognize an allergic reaction, especially anaphylaxis. Ogden says that wanting to hide an allergy because of feelings of insecurity can have dangerous, even fatal, consequences.
"That's when kids can get into trouble and where the risky behavior can start," she says. "They may try to eat what everybody else is eating. For those living with severe allergies, it's high stakes in terms of what can happen."
Doing some research and being prepared before the semester starts can help ease the transition to college and empower your child to manage allergies on his or her own.
Video: Food allergies affect college students
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