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Back to school
The ABCs of helping your child manage a health condition in the classroom

Is it an emergency?

Every year, more than 100 people die from anaphylaxis—a severe allergic reaction that occurs suddenly (usually within five to 30 minutes of contact with the allergy-producing substance, although symptoms can evolve over hours). An anaphylactic reaction can be life-threatening, leading to airway restriction and heart failure. Common causes of anaphylaxis include allergies to certain foods like nuts and shellfish, medications like penicillin and environmental factors like bee stings or exposure to latex. If your child has had contact with any of those substances and develops any of the following symptoms, get medical help immediately:

  • red, itchy welts
  • swollen throat passages
  • wheezing
  • trouble breathing or swallowing
  • vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal cramping
  • paleness

Key to preventing an anaphylactic reaction is avoiding triggers. An allergist can test your child to determine specific causes. You and your child’s teacher should also carry emergency medication, like an EpiPen, which injects fast-acting drugs to open airways and raise blood pressure, relieving symptoms.

For the estimated 10 million to 20 million American kids with chronic health conditions, getting ready to return to school means more than sharpening some pencils and buying a cool new lunchbox. Schools, parents and healthcare providers have a responsibility to work together to help accommodate kids with conditions like diabetes, asthma, allergies and epilepsy in a safe, supportive environment.

If your child is among the 10 percent to 15 percent of American children with chronic health problems, here’s what you need to know and do before that first school bell rings:

  • Meet with school officials. Let the principal, your child’s teachers and the school nurse know about your child’s condition. Discuss what his or her needs are and how they’ll be met throughout the school day—including lunchtime, recess and field trips. For example, if your child has diabetes and needs insulin injections or must eat at certain intervals, work out a plan that will be as minimally disruptive as possible. Educate your child’s teacher about the condition’s symptoms (for example, asthma can manifest itself with a dry, hacking, constant cough) and insist that someone properly trained to give medication always be available. If the school nurse isn’t attending a field trip, for example, make sure a teacher or another adult is qualified to give the required medication. Put the entire medical plan in writing and have your child’s doctor OK and sign it.
  • Speak up about special needs. Don’t be shy. If your child needs certain accommodations, work them out with the teacher. A child with juvenile arthritis, for instance, may find it easier to write assignments using a computer instead of a pen, which can put pressure on finger joints. A child whose asthma is triggered by dust or strong-scented cleaners may benefit from having the classroom cleaned daily with fragrance-free products.
  • Provide enough medication. Give the school nurse an ample supply of your child’s medicines. Make sure each is in a pharmacy-issued container with your child’s name and dosing/delivery instructions printed on it. Make a note of the expiration date and bring in a new supply when the medicine expires.
  • Update contact information. The last thing you need is to have the school nurse call an old cell phone number when she has important questions about your child’s illness or, worse yet, when your child is having a medical emergency.
  • Teach your child to help himself or herself. Even a kindergartner with a chronic illness can learn simple rules to stay safe at school. For example, if your child has diabetes and feels a sudden drop in blood sugar, tell him or her it’s always OK to interrupt a lesson to get a teacher’s attention. If your child has food allergies, make sure he or she understands that sharing food is forbidden. Give the teacher a supply of “safe” foods or snacks for your child to enjoy during birthday celebrations or class parties.
  • Arm your child with a medical ID bracelet. These bracelets (ask your child’s doctor or your pharmacist to give you information about how to obtain one) will identify your child’s medical problem—particularly important when he or she travels on field trips or to sporting events where others may not know about the medical condition.


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