Millions of Americans suffer from food allergies, which cause 200,000 emergency room visits each year. The FDA lists food allergens on labeling and more and more restaurants are making menu notations and offering allergen-free dishes. People with food allergies inform restaurant servers, carefully read labels and menus, and often carry epinephrine auto-injectors to treat severe reactions.
Food allergies are more common and complicated in children. Depending on their age, they may not be able to take proper precautions to protect themselves and avoid allergic reactions. Schools provide meals and snacks to students and are responsible for their wellbeing. This makes it imperative that schools adopt a food allergy management plan.
What’s a Food Allergy?
A food allergy is different from food poisoning, food additive sensitivity, and intolerances. It is an immune system reaction, which sometimes is life-threatening. If a person’s body thinks the allergen is harmful, it will release an antibody to neutralize the food. The immune system releases histamine into the blood stream, causing allergy symptoms when the victim eats the food again.
Common Food Allergies
Some common food allergies are triggered by ordinary ingredients found in many foods and dishes. It may not be obvious that a dish or food contains an allergen, and cross contact can sometimes be enough to cause a reaction.
The most common food allergies include:
- Tree nuts
- Fish and shellfish
Age, family history, asthma, and other allergies can increase the likelihood of a food allergy.
Food Allergy Symptoms
Within a few minutes or hours after eating an allergen, a sufferer may start experiencing symptoms, such as:
- Tingling mouth
- Abdominal pain
- Swelling lips or face
- Respiratory trouble
Anaphylaxis is a serve reaction with symptoms such as swollen throat, constricted airways, shock, rapid pulse, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.
Children and Food Allergies
Around 5% of American children have a food allergy. Some parents may be unaware their child has an allergy. If a kid frequently coughs or sneezes or experiences hives, nausea, or stomachache, he or she could be suffering from an allergy. Young children are among the most common food allergy sufferers. Some will eventually outgrow wheat, egg, and milk allergies, but not shellfish or nuts.
While there is no cure, avoiding allergens is the best way to prevent an attack. It is critical to educate children with food allergies about the allergens and reading food labels.
Parents of Children with Food Allergies
Children should be taught what causes reactions, the symptoms, and what to do. They should be discouraged from sharing food and eating food without labels.
Parents should make every effort to communicate their child’s food allergy with the school and talk to the school nurse. Ask the principal about the school’s food allergy management plan. It would be helpful to also meet with the school food services director and the child’s teacher. Prepare a Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan and make sure it is given to all responsible parties at the school.
Food Allergies in School
Information and education are the best tools for dealing with food allergies at school. This is particularly important since children are common food allergy sufferers. Schools should draft and implement food allergy management plans and inform staff and parents.
At the start of the school year, informational flyers can be distributed to parents with some basic facts and a request to inform the school of children’s allergies. Teachers should consider students’ allergies before incorporating foods into crafts and activities, prepare alternatives, and use non-food rewards.
Schools are required to provide substitute meals to students with life-threatening food allergies. Menus can be posted in advance so parents can identify possible allergens. Food handlers and servers should be trained regarding food allergy issues. And hand washing should be encouraged among staff and students.
Proactive anti-bullying prevention programs should be consistently enforced and include a system for students to learn to recognize and report bullying of children with life-threatening food allergies.
Food allergies are difficult for adults; they can be scary and confusing for children. The adults responsible for their safety should educate themselves and children about food allergies and implement plans to manage allergies at school.