Keeping Your Kids Healthy at Summer Camp

Serious medical conditions don’t have to hold kids back from having fun in the sun.

Summer camp counselor with children on kayaks.

Children only think about all summer camp’s fun activities, but parents must make sure their little ones remain safe while they’re away from home.

If you’re sending your kids off to summer camp, you can help keep the fun going by minimizing their risk of health hazards – from sunburn and dehydration to severe allergic reactions. Here’s what to look for when selecting a camp, and how to get your child camp-ready.

Choosing the Best Camp for Your Child 

When choosing among camps, check out their medical readiness. Does a physician work with the camp? Is the health center well-equipped, and how far away is the nearest hospital? Are staffers CPR certified, especially those involved with waterfront activities?

Look at the nurse-to-camper ratio, as well as the counselor-to-camper ratio, advises Dayna Hardin, director of the Lake of the Woods and Greenwood Camps in Decatur, Michigan. Her camp has nine full-time nurses, serving about 500 campers in each session.

“We want to make sure the staff is fully trained to handle any emergency,” says Debra Isaacson, camp charge nurse. Before campers arrive, their health histories are reviewed, and staff training reinforces emergency and injury care, such as the use of EpiPens and what to look for in terms of head injury and signs of concussion.

Hardin says campers include a number of kids with severe food allergies, particularly to certain nuts. “We’re peanut- and tree-nut aware,” she says. “What that means for us is we’re not serving anything in our dining hall that is made with or may contain or is made on the same line with peanuts or tree nuts.”

If your child has a chronic health issue, you’ll want to talk to the camp staff beforehand to find out how experienced and prepared they are to deal with the condition. You might consider a specialty camp, depending on availability.

Traditional camps can be safe too, Sharma says, with the appropriate precautions and advance preparation. “I think it’s important for children with allergies to do the same things that other children do,” he says. “So for parents I just say, make sure that the homework is done in advance before camp starts, to make sure the child is safe in that setting.”

Avoiding Allergic Reactions​

Severe allergies – to nuts, milk, eggs or seafood, or to insect venom – put some kids at risk for anaphylactic reactions, which can potentially lead to shock and be lethal. Deciding whether to send these children to overnight camp may be difficult, but parents can take steps to keep them safe.

First, it’s imperative to make sure immediate treatment is at hand if needed, says Hemant Sharma,​ associate division chief of allergy and immunology at Children’s National Medical Center in the District of Columbia.

For children with potentially life-threatening allergies, it’s critical to have access to two epinephrine auto-injectors – also known as EpiPens – at all times, he emphasizes.

Before kids leave home, it’s important that their parents and doctors prepare an anaphylaxis action plan, Sharma says, and review it with the camp staff and their child. The plan should list the child’s allergic triggers and how to avoid them; identify the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis; tell camp staff what to watch for if the child is accidentally exposed; and include instructions on how to use epinephrine injectors.

While severe food allergies are more common, venom from bees, wasps or other stinging insects can trigger equally dangerous reactions in susceptible children, he says. Camp staff can help kids avoid stings by making sure there aren’t any open soda cans or trash cans near play and activity areas.

[Read: I’m Not Neurotic: My Kid Has a Food Allergy.]

Dealing With Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes – the type that requires insulin injections – poses a different medical challenge. While theirs is not a specialty camp, Hardin says, “we feel comfortable, given our ratio of nurses to campers, to have a couple of kids at a time on the campground with Type 1 diabetes.” One consideration is children’s ability to manage their diabetes independently, she says, although the camp will provide support in terms of diet or helping kids change their insulin pump sites.

Another consideration is whether a kid’s blood sugar is fairly stable or frequently shoots to extremes. “For campers that do have many highs or lows on a regular basis, that’s somebody that we do recommend go to a specialty camp, where they’ll get more hands-on management from the nursing staff,” Isaacson says.

Medication Issues

Parents whose kids have chronic conditions requiring regular medication, like ADHD, should not put them on “drug holidays” while they’re at camp, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. If a change is made in a child’s medication routine, the staff should be notified, the AAP advises. 

During bad allergy seasons (like this one), parents of kids prone to seasonal allergy problems might want to talk to their doctors about putting them on medication before camp begins, Hardin says.

The Packing List

You’ve crammed shorts, T-shirts, tank tops, sneakers, a bathing suit and flip-flops into a duffel bag – but camp packing isn’t complete without health-friendly items such as ​water bottles, sunscreen and bug spray.

Packing may also include medical supplies for your child. With Type 1 diabetes, for example, you’d want to add items such as a glucometer, testing strips, insulin pump supplies like extra batteries and sugary snacks to manage blood-sugar lows.

For kids with severe allergies, two epinephrine auto-injectors, a backpack in which to carry them, anaphylaxis awareness materials to share with camp staff and allergy-friendly snacks are recommended in the Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis ​camp packing list from

[Read: 10 Essential Items to Pack in Your Child’s Hospital Bag.]

Arriving and Leaving Healthy​

Within an hour of arriving at camp, all campers receive a wellness check, which includes getting their heads checked for lice  ​and their temperature taken, Isaacson says. Parents can help kids start off on the right foot by not sending them to camp while they’re sick, she adds.

To prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases, hand sanitizer is available throughout camp, she says, and kids use it before meals, arts and crafts, and other activities. Cabins are disinfected daily with Lysol and bathrooms with bleach.

The health center stays busy, Isaacson says: “We see a lot of kids because they’re so active, and they’re outside all the time. We certainly encourage lots of water – we have water stations, we have Gatorade stations. But kids dry up; they get dehydrated pretty quickly.”

Parents with any questions or concerns about their child’s health shouldn’t hesitate to call the camp’s health center or director at any time, Hardin says.

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