Ah, summer camp. It either brings back fond memories of sing-alongs by the fire and archery lessons with new friends -- or swatting bat-sized mosquitoes and counting the days until you could go home.
This summer, 10 million children will head to camp. For kids with food allergies, asthma, and other health concerns, it’s a time to foster their independence — and for parents to lurch into Worry Overdrive. The good news is, your child is not alone. In fact, according to the New York Times, between a quarter and a half of the youngsters at any given summer camp require daily prescription medications, with allergy drugs and asthma drugs topping the list. Camps have responded, with many even catering to specific health issues. The trick is finding the camp that will meet your child's emotional and medical needs.
Finding the Right Fit
There are growing numbers of camps catering to specific health issues, including diabetes, ADHD, and asthma. For example, Camp Wheez in Santa Maria, California, is a week-long day camp for kids ages six to eleven who have asthma. The free camp provides asthma education, physical development activities, and arts and crafts. Heather Johnson, the program coordinator, explains the benefits: “The children are in an environment with other children who are experiencing something they can relate to. The campers truly enjoy themselves and by the end of camp, they feel much more comfortable with their asthma and their fear is either gone or subsided greatly.”
(To find camps accredited by the American Camp Association, go to www.acacamp.org. To find camps for kids with asthma, go to The Consortium on Children's Asthma at www.asthmacamps.org.)
While specialized camps are a great option for some, other parents seek camps based on their child’s interests. Lori Sandler is one such mom. Sandler is the founder of Divvies, the maker of gourmet allergy-free snacks and treats. Her 9-year-old son Benjamin, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, sesame seeds, and shellfish; he’s also happily attended sleep-away camp twice, with plans to do it again. “We do not let food allergies define who Benjamin is; he’s a regular kid who happens to have food allergies," she explains. "My advice is to make sure it’s a camp your child would enjoy; and that it has activities and a philosophy that matches your child.”
Ask the Right Questions for Allergies and Asthma
Once you’ve narrowed down the camp, ask as many questions as possible -- especially what kinds of health services it offers. A report in Pediatrics, written by Dr. Edward Walton, FAAP, FACEP, showed that almost half of camp health officers cared for children with significant medical needs, including diabetes, asthma, ADHD, and epilepsy. However, only 44% of them had medical training at the paramedic level or less; 40% said it would take an ambulance more than 10 minutes to get to their camp; and more than 70% said the receiving hospital was small or rural. Therefore, Walton advises parents and camp officials to communicate openly, early, and often about any health problems. Some questions to ask include:
• How often do you deal with allergies/asthma/food allergies? Do the counselors understand the emotional and health implications for my child?
• How far is the nearest hospital?
• Is there phone service/cell service from all areas of the camp?
• Is there a trained nurse on staff 24 hours a day?
• Do all counselors have phones or two-way radios?
• Do all counselors and staff members know how to use EpiPens and inhalers?
• Are campers allowed to carry their inhaler or EpiPen at all times and to self-administer as needed? (The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommend that parents teach their children how to use asthma inhalers or EpiPens, and that camp officials allow children to carry them with them at all times. Walton explains: "The delay that can occur when another camper or counselor has to run to the camp nurse's office to grab an inhaler for a child who is having an asthma attack or an EpiPen for a child who has been stung by a bee can have real health consequences.”)
When speaking to your child’s doctor, ask her to write an Allergy/Asthma Action Plan, which typically includes the child’s asthma, food allergy or seasonal allergy triggers and what to do in an emergency situation. Ask your doctor to write a list of your child's medicines, including the daily dose with any instructions and warnings visible (i.e. warnings such as "Children should avoid sun exposure while taking this medication").
Given a little planning — and lot of bug spray — your child will have a happy, healthy summer and a lifetime of wonderful memories.
Know Common Asthma and Allergy Triggers at Camp
Asthma and Allergy Triggers at Camp: Common camp triggers include exercise; molds and pollens; perfume and cologne (which are not allergies, per se, but can cause uncomfortable reactions); tree and grass pollen; insects; and animal dander.
• What to Pack for Seasonal Allergies and Asthma: EpiPen (with extras in case it gets lost); medicines; steroid nasal spray (such as Nasonex); steroid inhaler (such as Flovent or Asmanex); antihistamines (such as Claritin or Zyrtec); eye drops; eczema cream; hypoallergenic pillow and pillow cases; sheet covering; Medic Alert bracelet.
Food Allergy Triggers at Camp: Sandler explains that most camps have a person who handles food allergies. She recommends parents meet with that person, the camp management, and a head counselor. She advises that parents be aware of the unique logistics of camp and to make sure that their children will be safe in every setting -- the mess hall, their cabin, on day trips, etc. “Make sure you ask the camp what the food policy is in the bunks. For example, does the camp allow parents to send care packages from home? If so, what are the rules? Some camps are peanut-free and nut-free and don’t allow any food. Others allow care packages to be sent, but they keep all snacks in a closed chest until a designated night. In this way, the foods are monitored so they aren’t dangerous. For instance, if someone has a severe milk allergy and their bunkmate is eating Cheese Puffs in his bed, that can become airborne and be very dangerous.”
She advises working with camp owners and counselors in advance to create a plan that accommodates your child.
• What to Pack for Food Allergies at Camp: Medic Alert bracelet, allergy kit with epinephrine (EpiPen)and antihistamines. If your child has multiple food allergies, you may need to make and pack all of his food yourself. Use microwavable containers and label them with your child’s name, the date, and the contents. Give a list of what you’re sending to the camp director and the kitchen staff. Who knows? Given camp’s reputation for lousy food, the other campers may be jealous of your child’s homemade meals.