Can it really be time to think about back-to-school already? Yes, it is for colleges on the semester schedule and a lot of public school systems that begin in early August. If your child (whatever the age) has allergies, school can mean new or different allergens in a far less controlled environment than your home. And, of course, all children are exposed to more germs during the school year. The tips and suggested products below can help you plan ahead and make a big difference in your child's health and school success for 2012-13 whether in The Dorm Room or The Schoolroom. Starting At Home for the pre-college kids and preparing for Emergency Situations for all schools can also make a big difference.
The Dorm Room
You may be feeling the anxiety of sending a child off to college because you will not be there to encourage them to eat right, get enough sleep, and avoid allergens and germs. However, you can set them up for success with some automatic measures for good health. Putting encasings on the mattress (usually dorm rooms have long twin beds with no box spring) can help protect your child from allergens or bed bugs that could already exist in the used bedding. Cover their favorite pillow and other pillows on the bed with pillow encasings or replace old pillows with mite proof pillows that do not require an encasing or with germ fighting pillows. There may not be a lot of clothes or bedding washing unless they are close enough to bring the laundry home, but using an allergy reduction laundry detergent can remove allergens as well as dirt. A small air purifier in the dorm room can remove airborne allergens including pollen, dust, dust mite allergen, and pet dander. If there is a sink in the room or an attached bathroom they are responsible for cleaning, send a chemical-free or low chemical cleaner with them for the sink, tub or shower, and toilet. Encourage them to wipe the door knob, faucet handles, and other common surfaces where germs can live with a broad spectrum antibacterial disinfectant. Remind them this is easy and much better than getting sick. If the dorm room is carpeted, when you leave your child at college, apply an allergen neutralizing treatment. Leave a carpet treatment spray in hopes that your child will apply it to the carpet once or twice during the semester. An inexpensive HEPA vacuum can help reduce dust and allergen. For college kids who are sensitive to mold, you can apply a mold preventative to bathroom surfaces that will last for a whole semester (or supervise them doing it).
For younger children, even though they are living at home where you can control the environment, they are still spending about a third of their day at school. Talk to your child's teacher about the classroom and to school administrators about common areas in the school such as gyms, bathrooms, and lunchrooms. Find out what your child's school does to prevent the spread of germs and reduce allergens, and find out what kind of chemicals they use. You may be able to influence the purchasing department of your school system to go greener. Or you may be able to at least influence your child's teacher to wipe surfaces with a non-toxic, non-chlorine disinfectant. If you feel funny asking for preferential treatment, remember that the school wants your child there every day, too, and your child is not the only one with allergies. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) states that more than 9 million children under the age of 18 suffer from allergies and asthma which can account for more than 14 million missed school days and millions of dollars in medical bills and lost work days for parents. Here are some other ways you can help your child avoid allergens at school:
- If your child is allergic to animal dander and there is a classroom pet, ask if the pet can be moved to another classroom. If this is not possible, ask that your child be seated as far from the animal as possible and that the job of feeding the pet NOT be given to your child. If "show-and-tell" is a regular practice, ask the teacher that children not be allowed to bring their pets.
- If your child is allergic to mold, check for signs of leaks, visible mold, or a musty smell in the classroom and in the bathroom. Ask the school to immediately repair any leaks, remove any mold, and check further if mold is not visible but there is a musty smell.
- If your child is sensitive to airborne particles, chalk dust could be an asthma trigger. Ask the teacher to use dustless chalk and to seat your child away from the chalkboard.
- If your child is allergic to pollen, ask the teacher to keep any windows and outside doors closed.
- For airborne particles including animal dander, mold spores, dust, and pollen, a HEPA air cleaner in the classroom can also be of great benefit. Be sure to check square footage of the classroom compared to the area covered by the air cleaner.
Make sure children are given the opportunity to wash hands before lunch or snacks. Of course, teachers can lead children to water, but they can't make them wash their hands. Teach your child the importance of using good health practices at school just like they do at home.
It may feel like your elementary-through-high-school child is never at home with all their activities, but they do at least sleep at home for eight hours each day. Give them a good start each day by allergy-proofing their bedroom and the living areas of your home. Small children tend to spend a lot of time on the floor. If you can, install hard flooring such as wood, vinyl, or tile. If you have carpet, treat it regularly to kill dust mites and neutralize allergen. As in the dorm room, the child's room at home needs to have zippered allergen proof encasings on the mattress, box spring, and pillows. Keep humidity under 45-50% to retard the growth of dust mites and mold. Filter the air in the bedroom with covers for the incoming HVAC vents and room HEPA air purifiers. For the whole house, use allergen reduction furnace filters and change them with the seasons. Use low chemical or vegetable-based cleaners and personal hygiene products to keep fumes to a minimum.
Allergies to pollen, pets, mold, and dust mites can affect your child's health and school performance, but food allergies and asthma attacks (sometimes triggered by allergens) can actually be life-threatening. You are your child's best advocate; don't be afraid or embarrassed to make sure your child is as safe as possible while away from you at school. Find out what plans are in place for emergencies such as a reaction to food, bee stings, or other allergens and asthma attacks. Ask the school to develop a safety plan if one does not already exist. Dr. Dana V. Wallace, President of the ACAAI (The American College of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology is a professional organization of over 5500 doctors) states:
Food allergies are fairly common and potentially lethal. To put the problem in prospective, in a school of 1,000 students, statistically 20 students will be allergic to peanuts, 17 to milk, 14 to shellfish, 10 to tree nuts, and five to fish. If an allergic student is exposed to his/her specific allergen(s), a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction could occur. In addition, up to half of allergic/asthmatic students have been bullied by being threatened with allergen exposure. As a result, every school needs both a safety plan for medical emergencies and a bullying prevention plan in place before a crisis occurs. Asthma is equally serious. According to the AAFA (The Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America), "asthma is the #1 chronic cause of school absenteeism among children each year accounting for more than 13 million total missed days of school." The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) says that "an average of one out of every 10 school-aged children has asthma and asthma is the third-ranking cause of hospitalization among children under 15."
A school action plan is critical to the health of your child and all the children at the school. In the case of an allergic reaction, anaphylactic reaction, or asthma attack, the school personnel being educated and ready to act could be the difference in life or death.
In addition to an overall school plan, give your school an individual plan for your child. Talk to your child's doctor for help in developing your child's plan. The National Institutes of Health has an action plan form for asthma and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network offers a food allergy action plan. You can use these forms as they are or modify them to fit your child. These plans will tell the school what symptoms to look for and what to do at each step, especially when to administer medication or get medical assistance. For elementary through high school, make sure all teachers, cafeteria workers, and the school nurse have a copy and understand the level of danger for your child. At the college level, make sure the administration, the clinic, the dorm resident assistant, and your child's roommates have a copy of the plan and understand what they should do in case of an emergency. Teach your child it is okay to speak up and make themselves heard to adults as well as peers. Tell them exact words to say such as, "I think I am having an allergic reaction. Please help me". Provide all teachers and staff who will be responsible for your child a list of known substances that can cause an allergic reaction or trigger an asthma attack. Some sort of alert worn by your child can help emergency medical personnel know what to do, especially if your child is unable to talk. Planning ahead to allow for quick thinking and immediate action is essential for your child's health and safety.
Being prepared can help you feel better about sending your child off to school this year. A few precautions can help your child stay healthy and learn more easily. Thinking things through and making sure school personnel are prepared, too, can make a big difference. Happy school year to all!
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