Back to school with allergies

“Don’t be scare. Be prepared.” says Dr. O’Connor when discussing sending children with allergies to school.
“Don’t be scare. Be prepared.” says Dr. O’Connor when discussing sending children with allergies to school. Getty Images/Hemera

Back-to-school season can be a little scary if your child has asthma and allergies. Allergies to milk, peanuts, tree nuts, seeds, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish are all on the rise. Can you trust the teachers to provide a safe environment? Will they be upset that your child needs special treatment, and take it out on your child?

I tell my patients, “Don’t be scared. Be prepared.” Your goal is to have as normal a life for your child as possible and an enjoyable school year. Here’s how.

* Start the conversation now. Meet with your child’s teacher, headmaster, or other school officials to discuss your situation. Explain the signs of allergy distress in your child. If a three-year-old with asthma is coughing, the teacher needs to know the coughing might be the onset of an asthma attack or an allergic reaction.

Make the conversations upbeat rather than adversarial. Assume the teacher and school want to do the best for your child. Think of them as your partners.

* Create a written plan with your physician and the school. A written action plan gives clear instructions to anyone who may be in charge of your child at school, including substitute teachers and parent volunteers. Here’s an example of what an allergy or asthma plan might look like.

Along with the written plan, discuss where your child’s rescue medicine will be kept at the school. Make sure the medicine is readily available and not locked in a place where no one can access it.

* Teach your child to speak up. Coach him on what to tell the teacher if he has that funny feeling in his chest or other symptoms. You’ll be surprised at how articulate and perceptive even young children can be about their own health.

* Consider asking for an allergy-free table in the lunchroom. If your child has a serious allergy to peanuts, for instance, try asking for a peanut-free table. But keep in mind it’s rare for a child to have an allergy attack by inhaling an allergen from food. Many studies also show that food allergens are destroyed when the table is wiped with just soap and water.

Preschool is different, because children may grab food off of other’s plates. Make sure teachers are aware your child can eat only the food you have provided.

* See for yourself. Volunteer at class parties and field trips if you can. You’ll be able to confirm that the environment is safe, and you might have an opportunity to help educate other children and parents about allergies and asthma.

* Invite parents over for allergy-friendly meal. Maybe your child’s food allergy prevents the class from having cake or other fun foods. Invite parents to your house for a meal and conversation about how you can help make your child’s allergy easier for the class to manage.

* Join a support group. Other parents can share experiences and help guide you through this process. Local groups include Parents of Allergic Kids.

* Request a 504 plan. In some circumstances, you can request a 504 plan. These plans, supported by federal civil rights law, ensure your child cannot be discriminated against because of allergies or asthma. While you are discussing a 504 plan, you can also ask how the school responds to bullying.

The good news is most schools have a thorough understanding of allergies and asthma, even more so than five or ten years ago. After you’ve taken the steps above that best fit your family, let go just a little bit. Take a deep breath and realize your child can be safe with proper preparation. Trust that the teacher knows what she is doing. Have a great school year!