Allergies at Camp: How Parents and Campers Can Both be Prepared

Melissa Erickson
This article appears in Summer Camp Guide 2020

From food allergies to insect stings, allergic reactions can spoil a summer camp experience. Parents may be concerned, but finding the right camp for a child with allergies allows the camper to enjoy the experience while trained staff make sure the right protections are in place.

Most camps are well prepared to manage both food and environmental allergies at camp, said Tracey Gaslin, executive director of the Association of Camp Nursing.

“Camps generally have protocols in place for the identification and treatment of allergies often with epinephrine and diphenhydramine,” Gaslin said.

Do your homework

“A camp’s preparedness for food allergies depends on the staff’s diligence and policies that have been put into place to protect campers who do have food allergies,” said Lisa Gable, CEO of the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education. “We recommend that parents and guardians make direct contact with the camp’s administration well before camp begins, sharing details of a child’s allergy and ensuring there is documented and comprehensive awareness around any and all allergies.”

All staff who will be responsible for a child and anyone who may offer food or plan events needs to be aware of a child’s allergy, Gable said. This can include lifeguards, transportation drivers, cafeteria workers, camp nurses and counselors.

Kids can help

The best plan is to educate a child about his or her condition.

“This does not happen at one point in time but is a continuous developmental effort to encourage the young individual to recognize symptoms and know how to respond in the event of an allergic response,” Gaslin said.

In addition to providing a camp with a child’s complete medical record, children with allergies should have an emergency action plan, which is developed with the child’s primary care doctor, allergist and parents.

“For camps, an action plan is typically an agreed upon plan for managing symptoms of allergy,” Gaslin said. “In having a mutually discussed plan, the parents feel confident that they have been heard, and the camp can share what their capabilities are for response to events.”

Visit foodallergy.org to download FARE’s Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan, as well as a list of camps that are either designed specifically for children with food allergies or that welcome campers with food allergies.

Teenage tourists stand in fresh air in a park with trees and tent for camping picnic

Two kinds of reactions

Common allergic reactions present mostly in two ways: a more localized response and anaphylaxis, Gaslin said. Localized reactions include itching, swelling at the site and redness. Serious and possibly life-threatening, anaphylaxis has a generalized response including skin rashes or hives; difficulty breathing; swelling of face, lips, throat and eyes; vomiting or diarrhea; dizziness or fainting.

“If anaphylaxis occurs, immediate response is required, and it is helpful for camp staff to know if a child has had a previous anaphylaxis experience,” Gaslin said.

Campers should be instructed in the use of personal emergency medications or medical devices, such as inhalers or epinephrine autoinjectors, before arrival at camp.

Follow these guidelines

“Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room in the United States,” Gable said. Symptoms may start out mild, but they can worsen quickly.

  • Never trade food with other campers.
  • Do eat anything with unknown ingredients.
  • Read every food label and double-check with a counselor (if age appropriate).
  • Be proactive and seek help for all allergic reactions, even suspected ones.
  • Tell an adult if feeling a reaction starting, even if there are no visible signs.
  • Do not go off alone if experiencing allergic symptoms.
  • Know where the emergency care kit is located or which camp counselors have access to it.