If you have a food allergy, you’re used to your own kind of “normal”—having an EpiPen as a constant companion, bringing out your ninja label-reading skills before you try that new snack, and shrewdly avoiding trigger foods at parties and potlucks.
As you set out for college, your food allergy will come with you, but your familiar surroundings won’t. Mom and Dad won’t be there to advocate or remind. You and the college nurse corps probably won’t be on a first-name basis like you may have been with your high school nurse. What’s more, you may not have the familiarity of your own kitchen for preparing the foods you know are safe for you. Dorms may not have a kitchen, so you may be relying on a meal plan in the campus dining centers.
The great news is that many young people with food allergies like yours have had a safe and fulfilling college experience. In this article, we’ll talk about a few things you can do to ensure that your food allergy does not keep you from thriving in your college years.
Ask questions. Food allergies are increasing at a staggering rate. In fact, there was a 377% increase in the treatment of anaphylactic reactions to food from 2007 to 2016, according to FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education). It’s now estimated that an average of two children per school classroom have food allergies. Most colleges have taken this increase into account and have resources to help, but it’s up to you to find out what they are.
A good place to start asking questions is at the college’s disability office (sometimes referred to as the accessibility office) where you can find out what kind of accommodations are available for you.
Here are some key questions to ask regarding campus eating establishments:
- Are there allergen-free areas where you can eat?
- What allergy-friendly food options are available? (Some schools have apps that allow you to filter dining room offerings based on your specific allergy.)
- Are ingredient lists available? Or are allergenic foods labeled clearly?
- Are food workers trained in allergy-safe food handling practices?
- Can I tour the dining facilities or meet with the food staff?
- Are there staff members in the dining areas who are trained to handle a food allergy emergency?
You should also find out where the campus health center is located, where the nearest emergency room is, and who to call in the event of an emergency for the quickest response.
Communicate. You are now your own advocate, and no one benefits when you keep your food allergy hidden. It’s part of what makes you uniquely you. And the better you communicate your needs, the more awkward—and potentially dangerous—situations you can avoid.
If you are worried about roommates preparing food in your dorm or bringing in snacks that could cause airborne reactions (think peanuts), a private room may be the best choice for you. Even if these aren’t offered as a standard option, most colleges can offer private rooms based on needs. (Just make sure to apply early as these rooms are often assigned on a first-come, first served basis).
If you think you can handle a shared room, let your roommates know what foods could set off your allergies if brought into the dorm room. You should also let your roommates and resident advisor know how they can help if you ever have a serious reaction. Make sure they know where you keep your EpiPen and, if appropriate, teach them how to use it. (Find out if campus regulations allow them to administer epinephrine. In some cases, they may have been trained to use an EpiPen as part of their safety certifications.)
If you go out to eat with friends, don’t be shy about sharing what restaurant preferences work best with your allergies. Once you get to the restaurant, let your server know about which foods you cannot eat. To make things easier on yourself, consider creating a Food Allergy Alert Card. The card should list your specific food allergies and explain that your meal should not contain any of these foods nor have been touched by any utensils or preparation surfaces that have been in contact with these foods. Keep a few of these cards in your wallet or purse, and let them do the talking for you.
If you’re not used to talking about your food allergy, this may take some practice, but learning to clearly and confidently communicate your food allergy needs will be a boon to both your mental and physical health.
Be prepared. If you use an epinephrine auto-injector or other medications, get your prescriptions filled before you go to college. And don’t just have one EpiPen; make sure you have an ample supply of backups. Be ready for any situation by keeping your EpiPen with you. (Remember, Mom and Dad won’t be there to remind you about this as you walk out the door each day. It’s all you!)
In addition to your EpiPen, consider your food needs—specifically, your snacking needs. Life gets busy and you may not always be able to get to the dining facility when you need to, or you may just need a pick-me-up between meals. If you don’t have transportation, it may be hard for you to find the snacks that work best with your eating restrictions. Make sure you come stocked up with snacks (and have a plan for getting more, whether through online ordering, a care package from home, etc.)
Seek food allergy treatment. No matter how good you are at staying away from trigger foods, there’s no denying that avoidance does nothing to help the underlying problem. For years, avoidance was the only solution, but that is changing thanks to groundbreaking studies done at Duke, Oxford, and other universities and research institutions.
Treatment options such as sublingual immunotherapy are offering people a chance to reduce and even eliminate their food allergies. Ask us about food allergy treatment through sublingual allergy drops that can be taken in the comfort of your dorm room. This form of immunotherapy can help desensitize your immune system so that it stops overreacting to food proteins once and for all. We offer milk, wheat, and nut allergy treatment, and more. We look forward to helping you overcome food allergies so that you can thrive in college and beyond.