If you’re a teen heading off for your freshman year at college this fall, it may be the first time you will live on your own. In addition to studying and going to class, you may need to learn how to cook, do your own laundry and manage a budget. You may find yourself expanding your social networks and engaging in new behaviors, some of which may be bad for your health. With all the demands for your attention, don’t neglect your health. This is particularly important if you need to keep allergies and asthma under control.
Self-management is a vital part of staying healthy. For teens, this means understanding your body’s signals, including what elements trigger your allergies or asthma, what makes them worse and how to correctly use your medications. Self-management also means taking medications consistently and knowing who to contact in case of an emergency. You’ll need to make your own appointments and pick up prescriptions from the pharmacy. It takes time and practice to get comfortable taking care of your own health needs, so start now to get used to the added responsibility.
You may have been taking a back seat during your allergist visits in the past, but it’s important for you to start a more active role. Ideally, you should be the one asking questions and discussing your concerns during visits. There are specific issues that need to be addressed and understood, particularly if any type of medical device – such as an inhaler or epinephrine auto injector – is needed. Improper use of devices makes medications less effective. Although never an easy discussion, your allergist is a great person to ask about how intimacy or alcohol may interfere with your health, especially if you have food allergies or asthma.
Good communication plus preparation eases a lot of anxiety and helps ensure a smooth transition to living on your own. Before you leave, contact school administrators to discuss necessary arrangements for your dorm room, meals or transportation around campus. If you’re moving far from home, identify new primary care and specialty physicians – especially an allergist – as well as a new pharmacy. Ask your current allergist for a referral. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology has an allergist locatorthat can help you find an allergist in your new town. Prescriptions should be transferred prior to leaving for college, not when medications run out, which inevitably will occur at an inconvenient time. The nearest hospital facility may not be equipped to treat patients with special medical needs, so identify the best facility in case of emergency.
If you have food allergies, you’ll need to up your game when heading off to college. Plan to talk to food handlers and ask about ingredients at every meal or snack. You’ll also need to carefully read labels on packaged products. It helps if you inform your friends, roommates and resident advisor of your food allergies. It can be hard to manage new social situations, but don’t ever knowingly eat foods you’re allergic to because you’re afraid of standing out. It’s your job to educate others about your need to strictly avoid certain foods.
Despite your best efforts, accidents can still occur. Anyone at risk for anaphylaxis needs to have immediate access to epinephrine auto injectors at all times. Anaphylaxis is a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction, and being an adolescent is a big risk factor for severe food allergy reactions, along with peanut or tree nut allergy and coexisting asthma. Almost every fatality from food allergy involves lack of timely administration of epinephrine.
Epinephrine is the first line and only effective treatment for anaphylaxis and can rapidly reverse all symptoms associated with a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction. Unfortunately, lack of access to epinephrine is common, particularly among adolescents. One survey found adolescents were less likely to carry their auto injector at inconvenient times, including at the gym or because of wearing tight-fitting pants. Figure out a way to keep two doses of epinephrine on hand at all times, and remember to check expiration dates.
If you have food allergies, be aware that impaired judgment from drug or alcohol use increases your risk for accidental ingestion of foods that cause anaphylaxis. There are also risks associated with intimacy and the potential for partners to transfer food allergens through saliva. Discussions surrounding drugs, alcohol and sexual activity are never easy, but you may find your allergist is a great resource for providing straightforward information about these issues.
The transition to living on your own is an important milestone for adolescents. This is a time that should be mostly exciting, although often a little bit scary. With some foresight and preparation, anyone with allergies or asthma can successfully make this transition – and have a fantastic first year at college.