Going to College With Life-Threatening Allergies

Allergy & Asthma Network and Science and Outcomes of Allergy and Asthma Research (SOAAR) share preparation strategies and a new program on the horizon.

College is an exciting time, full of new possibilities and new friendships. If you have a life-threatening food or latex allergy, it may also feel overwhelming. Whether you're beginning freshman year or your final semester, successfully managing life-threatening allergies at college begins with preparation and communication.

"Preparing for the transition to college begins well before moving on to campus," says Tonya Winders, MBA, CEO and President of Allergy & Asthma Network, the leading patient education nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the needless death and suffering due to asthma and allergies. "Schedule an appointment with your board-certified allergist and obtain an updated Anaphylaxis Action Plan. Share any concerns about moving to a new environment and discuss how to be prepared for the unexpected."

"If your epinephrine auto-injectors are expiring, ask for a prescription refill," Winders adds. Epinephrine is the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.

“Make sure to carry epinephrine with you and know how and when to use it” says Ruchi S. Gupta, MD, MPH, pediatrician and director of Science and Outcomes of Allergy and Asthma Research (SOAAR) and ACE volunteer at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Provide the residential hall advisor with your Anaphylaxis Action Plan and talk with your roommates and friends about your allergy. "Teach them how to use an epinephrine auto-injector, in case you are unable to administer it yourself," Dr. Gupta adds.

SOAAR offers the following tips for students with life-threatening allergies who are preparing for college life:

Dining/Residence Halls

  • Discuss with dining services staff:    
    • Your allergies and dietary accommodations
    • Potential cross-contamination during food preparation and solutions such as cooking meals on a separate grill
    • Alternate meal suggestions
    • Campus food service locations that provide accommodations
  • Share concerns with your residential hall advisor and create inclusive strategies for residence hall events.
  • Do not eat food if you are unsure of its ingredients or how it was cooked. If you're of legal age, this goes for alcoholic beverages, too.

Latex Allergies

  • Many people are unfamiliar with latex allergy. Visit www.AllergyAsthmaNetwork.org and www.LatexAllergyResources.org for resources to distribute to dining hall staff, biology and chemistry lab coordinators, administrative staff, and others.
  • Speak with the dining hall chef about cross-reactive foods containing proteins similar to those found in latex. Ask that staff use non-latex gloves when preparing meals.
  • Request all decorative balloons on campus be made of Mylar instead of latex.

Health/Disability Services

  • Ask your allergist for a referral letter addressing the severity of your allergies and provide the letter to university staff when requesting accommodations.
  • If dining services are unable to accommodate your dietary restrictions, contact the disability services office at your school and request a campus apartment or dorm with a kitchen so you can prepare your own meals.
  • Connect with the on-campus doctor or nurse who can help you manage your food or latex allergy while at school.

Support Program on the Horizon

This period of transition is of interest to the SOAAR team, and as such, they have spent the past two years collaborating with Northwestern University’s Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) Program to address these very issues. SOAAR and the EDI students conducted interviews with key on and off campus stakeholders to gain insight into the specific needs of these key populations. Data from these interviews led to the development of Spotlight on Campus Allergies. This program aims to improve the overall well-being of students on campus, and to prepare them for key college transition periods such as freshmen orientation, joining a club or sports team, attending large events with external food vendors, and facilitating emergency response in the case of anaphylaxis.

During the second year of the Spotlight collaboration, the EDI students delved further into these transition periods and, using data from collected from stakeholder interviews, created intervention prototypes called Compass, Cares, Captivates, Connect, and Confidence.

  • Compass: A digital tool is used to help students to get informed and plan their own customized journey of adjusting to campus life. This plan can also be shared with parents and physicians.
  • Cares: Care packages—filled with allergen-free foods, labels for food, epinephrine auto-injector trainers, and infographics—are mailed to roommates of food allergic students to support their understanding of living with someone who has life-threatening allergies.
  • Captivates: During orientation, campus allergy educators will engage all students with easy and memorable EAI use training and anaphylaxis education.
  • Connect: Campus allergy educators will provide training sessions and allergy-safe catering advice to student organizations to ensure safety and inclusion for larger events.
  • Confidence: Dining halls will use a zero contact dispensing method for salad bar ingredients in order to decrease the chance of cross-contamination in the dining hall.

SOAAR believes that this program will help in making the transition to college a safer and more supportive process for everyone. We hope to pilot this program in 2018.

For additional resources about the transition to college, visit:



Science and Outcomes of Allergy and Asthma Research (SOAAR) works to improve the health and lives of children with food allergies and asthma by creating solutions and shaping policies. SOAAR is affiliated with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. To learn more about SOAAR visit: www.ruchigupta.com.

To request an ACE presentation

Email the SOAAR team at: soaar@northwestern.edu.

About Allergy & Asthma Network

Allergy & Asthma Network is the leading national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending needless death and suffering due to asthma, allergies and related conditions. Allergy & Asthma Network specializes in sharing family-friendly, medically accurate information through its award-winning publication Allergy & Asthma Today magazine, E-newsletter, website at http://www.AllergyAsthmaNetwork.org and numerous community outreach programs. Follow Allergy & Asthma Network on facebook.com/AllergyAsthmaHQ and twitter.com/AllergyAsthmaHQ.

About ACE

The Anaphylaxis Community Experts (ACE) program was developed by Allergy & Asthma Network in partnership with the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), National Association of School Nurses (NASN) and American School Health Association and sponsored by Mylan Specialty L.P. The program goal is to save lives through showing parents, school staff, emergency responders, and others how to recognize and respond immediately to anaphylaxis symptoms.