Eighteen Tips for the New School Year
Does returning to school with food allergies make you feel anxious? Teen Advisory Group member Saloni Somia offers tips and advice to improve your safety and help you feel more secure.
Guest post by Teen Advisory Group (TAG) member Saloni Somia
For most people talk of the start of school can be the signal for a groan, an eye roll, or even a tiny gleeful dance. However, for kids and teens with allergies the start of school can also be a signal for anxiety. It’s scary to have to navigate the school days in a normal fashion when your school could be serving your allergen, or the student next to you could be snacking on your allergen or having your allergen for lunch. Many kids with allergies have learned to go about their school days in a safe fashion, but that doesn’t make it any easier or less scary. As an older student with severe allergies I have experienced this for many years and have gathered some tips to help you through your school days. My hope is that these tips help you feel some sense of security and allow you to potentially do a tiny gleeful dance for the start of school or at least a weak fist pump. I've assembled a variety of tips that will hopefully be new information or a good reminder for younger kids and older kids alike. I have also outlined tips that may be more helpful at specific levels of education, including elementary, middle, and high schools.
- Never be ashamed of having allergies. Your priority is your own health and life, not someone else’s opinion of you or their comfort. It doesn’t matter who it is that is making you feel unsafe. It could be a random kid, a friend, a peer, or even a teacher. It’s important to put your own health and safety first. If they don't understand, that's their problem. It has absolutely nothing to do with you.
- Make sure to alert your school nurse to your allergies and provide the health office with a copy of the emergency care plan developed with your allergist.
- Always make sure you know where your epinephrine injectors are at all times. Will the school nurse have them? Are they in the main office? Are you going to carry them yourself? Make sure this decision is finalized before the start of school so that you always know who has your epinephrine and how you can access it.
- Do a tour of the school so that you know where the health office is and, with your parents, talk to the school nurse and the lunchroom staff. This tip is especially important for younger kids or kids who are transitioning between schools.
- Tell your teachers and coaches about your allergies so that no one has your allergen as a snack in your class. Your teacher or coach can tell the class and team that no allergen-containing snacks are allowed in the classroom or during practice. This helps create a consistent message that can be reinforced by an adult. It also helps alert more adults in your life about your allergy so that you can be as safe as possible.
- Talk to your parents and doctor about whether a 504 plan can be implemented for you. A 504 plan is a comprehensive legal plan that addresses the needs of a food-allergic student in the school system. It can help provide consistent training to all your teachers and coaches in the school and creates a framework to protect your safety and inclusion.
- Always check the school menu closely and develop a relationship with the lunchroom staff. You and your parents / guardians should review the menu and communicate with the staff about the ingredients and ingredient suppliers. Make sure you talk to them about the ingredient labels, precautionary labeling (such as "may contain") and cross contact.
- Consider the possibility of a special meal during your discussions with lunchroom staff. Check to see if your school can make you a meal that is separate from the rest of the food and is made with safe ingredients. Make sure they implement whatever strategies they can to eliminate the risk of cross contact.
- Bring your own lunch and snacks from home if you still don't feel safe after conversations with your school’s lunch staff. When you bring your own food you can avoid cross-contact and know that you have previously eaten all of the ingredients. I strongly recommend bringing your own lunch: it's safest and helps eliminate some of the anxiety that comes with eating food that someone else prepared for you.
- DO NOT SHARE FOOD!!! This tip pertains to school, athletics, clubs, birthday parties...everywhere. This can be hard for younger kids who may not completely understand the danger of their allergies yet. Not sharing is especially important when it comes to homemade foods, such as home-baked cookies at the lunch table. Your friend may offer you cookies that their mom made. You should not eat these cookies, even if your friend knows exactly what went into them! There could have been a stray allergen that made its way into the food. There could have been cross contact.
- Don't eat anything with unknown ingredients. If you do not have an ingredient label or don't absolutely know every step of the food preparation process you should not even consider eating the food.
- Always read labels completely and fully. Even if the food that you want to eat has a long ingredients label, you need to make sure you read it to the end. Sometimes it can be so tempting to just skip the long ingredients list and go to the little “contains” label at the end. DON'T DO IT!!! Make sure you read the label completely because the “contains” label may not list every allergen in the product.
- Always wash hands before and after eating. You can't control everything about your environment. You don’t know who was at a desk before you, you don't know if your allergen touched it, and you certainly don’t know the history of everything you touched during that day. That’s why it's important to always wash your hands and wipe down / cover any surfaces that you may be eating on. It’s also good to always wash your hands after eating, so that you can help keep surfaces clean for others.
- Learn what symptoms generally indicate a reaction for you. This tip is especially important for younger kids who may not be as aware of their allergies. You can be treated more effectively if you catch the reaction early, and the only way to catch a reaction early is if you know what to look for.
- Always tell a teacher or school nurse if you are having an allergic reaction.
- Educate your friends about your allergies and how to administer your epinephrine so that they are ready if they ever need to. Your first contact in case of an allergic reaction should always be the school nurse or a trusted adult who can take action. However, and especially for college students, it is also important to make sure your friends can help you.
- Map where the nearest hospital is. Is there a hospital your parents/ guardian would prefer you go to? Make sure you know which hospital you will need to go to if you have a reaction.
- Always keep an allergy card or allergy bracelet on you. In the worst case scenario of having a reaction, it is important for others to know you have an allergy. If someone doesn’t know already, you can wear or carry an item that will let them know about your allergy. The card or bracelet can also include the location of your epinephrine injector so that they can access it if you are unable.
I know that was a really long list of tips, but I really hope that you are able to glean some information to help you have a safe and reaction-free school year where the only thing you have to worry about is your homework. I hope that by following these tips you will be able to find a little bit more security at school and will know your emergency plan in case you were to ever have a reaction. Thank you for reading through these tips, and I wish you a successful school year!