Picture this: I wake up at 6:30 am to go for a run.
Before I can begin to truly appreciate the warm weather, an all-too-familiar sense of dread washes over me as I’m hit with the smell of nature and the sight of a bright-green film on parked cars. Ugh! It’s pollen. It’s allergy season, and I’m just a few miles away from a full-blown reaction of rubbing my eyes, scratching my throat, and seriously regretting not taking Flonase this morning.
As someone who’s dealt with severe allergies since birth and asthma since childhood, National Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month (May) is an opportunity for me to provide my fellow student affairs professionals insight into a student population that’s often overlooked. In my experience, allergies are usually only taken seriously when they are anaphylactic in nature. Other manifestations or symptoms are viewed as personal preferences at best and histrionics at worst.
According to the CDC, one in 13 people in the US has asthma, and it is more prevalent among women than men. African Americans have higher asthma mortality rates than any other racial group, and asthma is the most common reason that children miss school.
Asthma can be triggered by exercise, weather, emotion-related changes in breathing, medicines, and allergies. Some common allergic asthma triggers are dust, mold, pollen, cockroaches, and pet dander. Cigarette smoke, perfume, paint, and scented soaps are among the top non-allergic triggers.
Asthma cannot be cured, but it can be managed with proper treatment and prevention of asthma attacks.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, one in 7 people have allergies. There are many types, including skin allergies, indoor and outdoor allergies, drug allergies, insect allergies, and food allergies.
Some of the most common allergic triggers are milk, soy, peanuts, latex, penicillin, trees, grass, pollen, bee stings, cockroaches, dust, and poison ivy. There are no cures for allergies, but they are managed with treatment and prevention — which includes avoidance of allergic and non-allergic triggers.
People with asthma and allergies experience a range of symptoms, including itching, coughing, sneezing, trouble breathing, hives, and tightness in the chest. Both are classified as chronic, potentially fatal diseases.
While these are invisible diseases, they have a very real impact on people’s quality of life, and as the professionals responsible for college students’ co-curricular experiences, SA pros should be more attuned to this population.
There are many environmental campus factors that can enhance or worsen the college experience for students with allergies and/or asthma. We typically think of dining halls when we consider our responsibility to be mindful of student allergies. But I would like to offer four additional ways that all SA pros can better support students with allergies and/or asthma.
1. Rethink outdoor activities for programming
As both a student and a professional, I’ve seen many outdoor activities incorporated into co-curricular programs. I’ve seen outdoor icebreakers at a leadership retreat, outdoor picnic lunches at student staff trainings, outdoor adventure courses to teach team building, and visits to campus or community monuments as part of leadership courses.
While all of these activities serve a purpose and are best facilitated (or are only able to be facilitated) outdoors, we have to consider what students with allergies and/or asthma have to negotiate to participate.
Maybe the adventure course requires them to take off their book bag or fanny pack. In that case, where will they store their EpiPen or inhaler? Maybe the picnic lunch requires them to sit on the grass; should they risk an eczema or asthma flare-up to simply fit in with their peers? Maybe the monuments are surrounded by cherry blossoms or other flowering trees; should they just deal with the sneezing and itchy eyes since this trip will inform their next writing assignment?
In all of these instances, it is up to us, the student affairs folx, to think through the potential issues a student may face and present them with alternative options.
We can move icebreakers into a larger indoor gym space if students are allergic to outdoor triggers, or we could choose a picnic space that has both grassy and concrete areas to give students multiple seating options. Additionally, when asking or telling students to leave their belongings in a classroom or cubby, we can make disclaimers about students who need to keep life-saving medicine or other emergency items with them.
2. Create low-scent environments for indoor events
Perfume, scented hand soap, air fresheners, diffusers, and fresh flowers can create a nice ambiance for an in-person event, but make the same event a nightmarish experience for students with allergies and/or asthma. Scented products and flowers are non-allergic triggers that impact air quality and make breathing more difficult.
When designing indoor programs, use faux flowers instead of fresh ones, along with unscented hand sanitizer or hand soap. Be sure to also ask attendees to be scent-free in their beauty and hygiene choices.
While this may seem extreme, many workplaces have scent-free policies — as scents can induce hives, nausea, coughing, and trouble breathing in people with allergies, asthma, and chemical sensitivities.
If you’d like to learn more about how to craft a low-scent policy for your events and programs, check out this step-by-step guide from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
3. Increase food options
SA pros often joke about food being a way to incentivize student engagement. For some students though, our typical food choices might be all the more reason to stay away.
The nine most common food allergens are dairy, peanuts/tree nuts, eggs, sesame, soy, fish, gluten, shellfish. Some of the foods we commonly serve at programs — like pizza, cookies, pretzels, granola bars, and yogurt — include these allergens.
Using food to draw students to an event makes sense, as meeting their physiological needs is important for them to begin grasping the co-curricular content we’re offering. However, as we design these programs, we should think about students with various dietary needs including food allergies.
One way to do this is to include a short-answer question in RSVP forms, instead of using radio buttons and assuming that the only dietary needs are Kosher, Halal, gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian. Another option is to work with dining services to replicate some of their practices in dining halls for students at your programs. Check out what The University of Maryland is doing to better support their students with food allergies.
For events that serve food but don’t utilize an RSVP form, SAPros should have a plan for serving students with food allergies. This might include ordering foods that are free of the top nine allergens and announcing that there are options available or even creating a plan with your caterer ahead of time to bring in allergen-free food as needed.
For pop-up events or tabling programs, SAPros can make sure they have allergen-free snacks for students ready at all times. For instance, Partake sells cookies that are free of the top allergens, and they are available at Target.
When incorporating allergen-free food into your programs, you should reserve that food for the students who need it. Mere preferences related to flavor are not the same as allergies. As the event planner, you should announce that these foods are for people with food allergies or dietary restrictions, and make it a priority for people with food allergies or dietary restrictions to be served first. After that, you can choose whether to allow students with preferences to partake.
4. Communicate early and often
Unfortunately, you can’t control every environmental factor that might trigger allergies and asthma.
One such factor is the weather. But although you can’t micromanage the outdoors, you may be able to influence indoor heating and cooling settings.
Air quality is a major factor in supporting students with allergies and asthma, and proper ventilation is a part of this. If you are unable to directly influence when the heating and cooling systems will be turned on in campus buildings, the best thing you can do is communicate options to students.
Are students able to use window units? Let them know where they can buy, rent, or borrow one and who they can call to get it installed (ideally, for free). Communicating with students proactively will show that you care and have their best interests in mind.
You should also give students a heads up about anticipated environmental changes. Is there a painting project scheduled in the room next door? Does facilities management always cut grass on Thursdays? Is a landscaping company coming to mulch the grass outside of the residence halls? Is housekeeping mopping the floors on Monday?
While these may seem like regular facilities maintenance tasks, they are also alarming allergy and asthma triggers for many people. In addition to naturally occurring environmental triggers, scented cleaning products and aerosols are also allergy and asthma triggers.
To help students prepare for these occurrences, you can use email, your student engagement portal, flyers, or social media to communicate cleaning, landscaping, and painting schedules. This way, students know when to take medicine, avoid certain areas, or be more diligent with their treatment plans.
I hope these tips taught you a bit more about the needs and concerns of students with allergies and asthma. Your students are not being dramatic or high-maintenance; they deserve to have their needs met just like everyone else. This National Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month, I hope you renew (or begin) your commitment to prioritizing the needs of allergy and asthma sufferers.