Don’t Let GI Problems Get in the Way of Summer Camp Fun

July 7, 2016

Tent 2For lots of children, attending summer camp is an exciting and fun-filled experience. But for children with GI issues – whether it’s a nagging stomach ache or something more serious, like ulcerative colitis – the prospect of going away to camp can be daunting. It doesn’t have to be.

Carolina S. Cerezo, MD, who specializes in pediatric gastroenterology, nutrition and liver disease at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, offers practical advice for the families of children with GI problems as they make plans for summer fun.

What should you ask camp directors regarding dietary options?

Does the camp provide accommodations for a child with special dietary needs, such as diets free of gluten, peanuts or dairy? Are there other special accommodations like vegetarian or vegan meals? Is there a dedicated kitchen to provide for those special diets? How should special meals be labeled, if sent from home?

What should families ask about medical care at the camp?

What are the procedures and protocols in place if there is an accidental ingestion or exposure to something a child is allergic to? Is there an on-site nurse or doctor to respond to emergencies? Is there an AED on site? These are all important questions.

Carolina S. Cerezo, MD

How can a caregiver of a child with a GI issue prepare for summer camp?

Parents should inform the camp ahead of time about the child’s medical history and allergies. There is usually a form that most camps will require as part of registration. Sometimes, the camp may ask a physician to sign the form. Parents may create a list of allergies or food restrictions. Also, parent and physician contact information should be provided to the camp. For day camps, parents should label meals (breakfast, lunch, snack) clearly and include the child’s name.

What should the child bring to camp?

For those with severe allergies, medications like Benadryl or an EpiPen are important. The camp should have a list of those children with medical conditions and allergies and have a medical kit containing these emergency medications. Again, parents should know if there is a nurse or doctor on site and provide them with family and medical provider information.

In terms of accidental exposures, what are some common mistakes a child might make while away from home?

Sharing food with another child or eating off somebody else’s plate is a concern, as is eating camp food without asking what it contains (peanuts, gluten, etc.).

How important is it for children to advocate for themselves?

It’s important to note that some children may not be comfortable reporting problems to a camp counselor or supervisor if they have experienced an alarm symptom like diarrhea, severe constipation, or blood in the stool for those with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Some kids might skip meals due to abdominal pain but not inform the camp supervisors for fear of missing fun activities or for being embarrassed. Parents, and the camp staff, should strongly encourage children to report symptoms.

Anxiety from being away from home may be an important factor for these kids. What is your advice in lessening the anxiety?

Familiar objects like a favorite toy, blanket, photos of family members, or a favorite movie may help. It’s best to have the child attend camp with a friend or to know one of the camp counselors, if anxiety is a major problem. Music and books, which the camp may provide, may help as well.

Overall, what advice would you give to a parent in choosing a camp?

Parents should involve the child when selecting a camp. More importantly, if the child has a serious GI condition, a medical clearance is needed. The parents should choose a camp that can provide the best accommodation for their child’s needs, particularly, one with an on-site medical team. The choice between a day camp, overnight camp, or long-term (one to four weeks) camp should also depend on the severity of the child’s illness and willingness to participate. Parents should be prepared to address possible contingencies if the child chooses to leave the camp.