Surviving summer camp with food allergies

If you're allergic to ragweed pollen, bananas might be a problematic food for you.

Editor’s note: Mireille Schwartz is the founder and executive director of the Bay Area Allergy Advisory Board, an organization that promotes education and awareness. It also provides no-cost medical care and medication to families with severely allergic children. She is the author of “The Family Food Allergy Book.”

(CNN) — No doubt your children are ecstatic that summer’s here — and you’ll be just as excited when you can send them off to camp, right? Follow these safety tips to ensure food allergies don’t get in the way of all the fun:

More than 12 million Americans — including 1 in 13 children — suffer from food allergies.

A food allergy occurs when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein, triggering the sudden release of chemicals, including histamine.

Symptoms may be mild (rashes, hives and itching), but they can also escalate quickly to severe: difficulty breathing, wheezing, a drop in blood pressure, even loss of consciousness.

It’s important to understand that a food allergy can be potentially fatal; even trace amounts of the offending food can trigger these reactions. There are also unexpected sources of “hidden” allergens in soups and marinades, lurking in fryer vats and garnishes.

Cross-contamination can occur when one food comes into contact with another food and their proteins mix on, for example, the same cutting board or on the same serving utensil. As a result, the two foods blend in amounts so small they can’t be seen. That’s why a camp’s dining room or mess hall requires extra vigilance.

There’s a new bumper crop of camps that have arisen nationwide to meet the needs of severely food-allergic children.

Some are day camps and some are “sleepover” camps, but they share one trait in common: they strive to provide a completely worry-free experience where young people with food allergies can build confidence, independence and enjoy a summer rite of passage away from their parents.

Food awareness is the focus at these camps.

They don’t serve the top allergens, or the “Big 8”: milk, soy, wheat, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. Some are also sesame-free and gluten-free to accommodate almost every food allergic lifestyle.

The real world certainly isn’t allergy-free, however, and some parents might prefer a more practical environment where older tweens and teens can learn to manage and coexist in an allergy-filled world. Gaining the skill to communicate effectively while advocating for oneself is a useful tool in all aspects of life.

Depending on the camp’s administration, their medical care and their emergency protocols, it can be possible and enriching to attend a “regular” camp with friends and siblings. In choosing a camp for my nut-allergic daughter, this is also our annual personal choice.

It is essential to prepare ahead of time. Camp staff, physicians, parents and your campers themselves need to work together to minimize risks.

As a parent or guardian, there’s plenty you can do to arm yourself with knowledge about your youngster’s traditional summer camp. Consider asking: Is your camp accredited? Does the camp have designated personnel to handle an emergency? Does the camp have a policy for managing food allergies? Most importantly, do camp counselors know how to inject epinephrine? If so, where exactly will medications to treat an allergic reaction be kept?

If the camp is in a rural area, you should know how far the camp is from the closest emergency facility and whether the facility has a doctor available 24/7.

The kitchen coordinator and staff are also an integral part of this safety plan. Ask how they will help prevent accidental ingestions. Will ingredients be labeled in the dining area? What about safe snacks in cabins? Are the food service personnel educated about creating a safe meal free of cross-contamination?

If you’re unsure the kitchen staff will comply, your camper may want to provide his or her own coolers of safe snacks and even meals, complete with dedicated, safe cooking utensils. Make sure the area where these are stored will be designated as “allergy free” to avoid any and all cross-contamination.

Camp counselors and activity leaders can be key in the line of defense.

How will the camp communicate your child’s food allergy information to them? Will campers be outside the camp on field trips (lake, bike or hiking trails) and, if so, where will medication be kept in this scenario? What about allergen avoidance during arts and crafts, such as egg cartons, paints or bird feeders?

It may seem like a lengthy, exhausting list (and no doubt you can add on with even more pertinent questions relating to your own specific family allergies). But it’s absolutely possible to survive and thrive with food allergies at summer camp.

Until there’s a cure, we can help each other along the way by keeping an open dialogue. Share your tips for food allergy safety below.

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