Aug. 30, 1999 Back to school for kids means getting new clothes and supplies, seeing old friends and hoping the teacher will be “cool.” For children with allergies, the fall season—and possibly school itself—also can bring an array of symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, headaches and hives.
These children, and their parents, can manage back to school hazards with good planning, communication and awareness. “Allergies that are properly treated should not keep these kids from doing what any other kid can do,” says Michelle Freas, R.N., medical education coordinator at the Kunsberg School on the National Jewish Medical and Research Center campus. Her strongest advice to parents is, “Be a detective. Ask questions. Don’t jump to conclusions.
“Talk to the teacher, the school nurse and, if necessary, the food service people,” she says. “Inform them of your child’s allergies. Discuss any conditions that might be a problem, and try to work out solutions.” If your child has never had allergies before and suddenly comes home from school with symptoms, “Find out what he or she was doing just before the reactions occurred,” Freas advises. “If it’s not a cold, it’s probably allergies—especially if someone else in the family has them.”
Ragweed, other weeds and molds are the environmental culprits, since grasses and trees have already pollinated. Freas tells children who know they are allergic to use common sense: “Don’t run through the weeds on your way to soccer practice! And when you get home, take off your jacket, change clothes and get them washed. Don’t sit on the sofa with pollen-covered clothes.”
Furry animals such as gerbils, hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs, are wriggling balls of allergens for kids who react to animal hair. “Children may already know they’re allergic to cats and dogs, but they don’t think about these other critters,” Freas says. “If the kids and parents get to vote on what pet they want, choose a reptile or fish. Those are fine in a classroom.” Kids can also monitor their own reactions. “Don’t volunteer to feed the gerbil, and if you touch it, wash your hands afterwards,” Freas suggests. “Choose a desk on the other side of the room from the animal cage.”
Allergies should not exclude any child from field trips. “We take our kids to the zoo!” Freas says of the more than 90 children with allergies and asthma who attend classes at Kunsberg. “We just have to know who has a problem and what to do about it. For severely allergic kids, we take their medications with us” A petting zoo for small children may cause flare-ups, however, since children actually touch the animals. “Keep the teacher informed,” Freas suggests, “or volunteer to go on the field trip.”
Homework, Tests and Friendships
“There shouldn’t be any problem completing homework,” Freas says. “If a child has an allergy attack, he or she might be crabby and irritable, but that’s not an excuse.” Someone with a severe case of hives who has been highly medicated may get drowsy, but in general, homework, grades and test performance need not suffer. The same goes for friendships and socializing. “If you take your medication two or three times a day—before school, after school and at bedtime—no one even has to know that you have allergies,” Freas says. “We do not excuse behavior due to asthma or allergies here. I wouldn’t expect any less from regular school. These kids have to live with their allergies and manage them. Otherwise, chronic illness has control over their life instead of the child controlling the illness.”
Children with Asthma Add ‘Action Plan’ to List of School Supplies
When parents of children with asthma start getting school supplies together this time of the year, they need to add another item to the list: an asthma action plan.
An asthma action plan is written with the help of the child’s doctor, and includes the child’s asthma triggers, asthma early warning signs and what to do in an emergency. Approximately 5 million children in the United States have asthma.
“It’s a big mistake to send a child to school without telling anyone they have asthma,” explains Epi Mazzei, R.N., LUNG LINE manager at National Jewish Medical and Research Center.
Asthma triggers vary by person, but can include exercise, molds and pollens, perfume, cologne and strong odors, and cold air. Other asthma triggers that aren’t so obvious include byproducts of new construction, such as dust, and strong odors from new carpeting, flooring and other building materials.
“Some children play and do fine, but when it gets cold or pollens are in the air--that throws them over the edge into an asthma attack,” Mazzei says. “Kids know when they aren’t feeling well. Encourage the child to be proactive.”
Children whose asthma is triggered by exercise should pretreat--an important way to keep an exercise-induced asthma attack from occurring--before P.E. or recess. For children with serious asthma, LUNG LINE recommends they carry a “rescue” inhaler. It’s used when the child experiences symptoms such as wheezing, excessive coughing or chest tightness.
Parents can be proactive by meeting the child’s teacher or the school nurse before the school year starts and explaining the asthma action plan.
“Whether your child is a teen-ager or a 5-year-old, that meeting will help to decide who your child should tell when symptoms start,” Mazzei says. “We always tell parents to call the contact person a couple of weeks after the meeting to see if they have questions.”
For more information, call LUNG LINE, (800) 222-LUNG, E-mail, email@example.com or visit our Web site, http://www.nationaljewish.org/pa.
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