Preparing for an Allergy Free School Year

by thomas e. scarborough, jr., M.D.

Back-to-school season is busy time of the year – new teachers, students, classrooms, courses, and after school activities. The upcoming school year is jammed packed with activities that no one wants to miss. Therefore, it is important to address health issues prior to the start of the school session.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Allergy (AAAAI), more than 9 million children under the age of 18 suffer from allergies and asthma. This can account for more than 14 million missed school days, millions of dollars in medical bills, and lost work days for parents who stay home with sick children. Parents and children should prepare an action plan for addressing their allergies and asthma so that the children can focus on school instead of how bad they feel.

Allergies are triggered by the body’s response to environmental exposures that are typically non-harmful. These environmental triggers are called allergens. They are present both indoor and outdoor, and are found in the school environment. Allergy exposure can trigger an array of symptoms that make it difficult for kids to focus on their schoolwork. Allergens can come in the form of pollens, molds, dust mites, animals, insects, and foods.

Common allergic and asthmatic symptoms include:

Eye itching, redness, and tearing

Runny nose, sneezing, and congestion

Skin itching, eczema, and hives

Cough, wheeze, shortness of breath, and chest tightness

Reducing or avoiding exposures to known allergens can decrease symptoms. Though avoidance is often helpful at reducing symptoms, medicine may be necessary depending on the severity of the allergic symptoms.

Allergens can be found in most environments, including schools. Many of the most common allergens can be found in the school classroom, cafeteria, and playgrounds.

Dust mites, mold, animals, and chalk are common classroom allergens and irritants

Dust mites are tiny creatures that love humidity and dust. Thankfully, Billings and eastern Montana have a dry climate, so dust mite levels are kept to a minimum. They feed off human, dog, and cat dander. Their droppings are a common trigger for allergy and asthma.

Mold is found in warm, humid places. Mold spores can cause an allergy or asthma attack. The mold most closely associated with allergies is called Alternaria. Make sure that the school routinely repairs and seals any leaking roofs or pipes to prevent the formation of an environment that is opportune for mold to grow.

Animal allergies caused from proteins found in saliva, dander, or urine can trigger allergy or asthma attacks. If your child is allergic to animals, then they should avoid classrooms with pets or school trips that involve direct contact with animals.

Chalk dust is not an allergen, but an irritant that may provoke an allergic or asthma attack. If your child has problems with allergies or asthma, they may need to minimize exposure to chalk boards and erasers. They should wash their hands after writing on the chalk board. A dry erase board might be a better option.

In the cafeteria six foods account for 90% of food allergies in kids. (Milk, Egg, Peanuts, Wheat, Soy, Tree nuts)

Playgrounds at recess can expose kids to several potential allergens and provoking stimuli.

Pollens are microscopic granules necessary for plant fertilization. If you child is sensitive to pollen they may need medicine 30 minutes prior to going outside. Also, if it is possible to keep the school windows closed, this will help prevent pollen from coming in the classroom.

Stinging insects may cause serious reactions.

Exercise is a common trigger for asthma. Kids with exercise induced asthma find it hard to keep up with other kids because of cough, wheeze, and shortness of breath with exercise.

Prior to the start of school is the best time to proactively diagnose and explore whether your child has allergies and asthma. This knowledge can help parents prepare for potential school related allergy exposures.

Reach out to teachers, coaches or school nurses to help create a plan that will help your child avoid potential triggers for asthma or allergies. It is also an opportunity to teach them how to properly deal with allergic or asthmatic episodes.

Encourage your child to communicate with their teachers, coaches or school nurse about their allergy/asthma problems. If their symptoms worsen it is important that the student be able to freely discuss issues with them.

If your child has certain food allergies, inform the school cafeteria staff as well as teachers so that certain foods are avoided and safer alternatives are available. The best solution for food allergic children is a packed lunch from home.

In case of emergencies, a dose of auto-inject able epinephrine may be necessary. Make sure your child carries it with him, knows how to use it properly, and has one that is not expired. Also, make sure that he has a written action plan that is shared with his teachers, coaches, and school nurse.

Talk with physical fitness teachers and/or coaches about asthma problems your child may have. Inform them of warning signs associated with exercise induced asthma.

Talk with you child about taking necessary medications. Make sure they understand when and how the medicine should be taken.

Schedule an appointment with your doctor prior to the school year. Review avoidance measures, medications, treatment plans, and discuss your action plan for a successful school session. SFM

Thomas E. Scarborough, Jr., M.D. practices at Montana Allergy and Asthma Specialists.