Looking back 20-30 years ago, food allergies in schools were practically unheard of. Sure, each class may have had one or two asthmatic students, but for the most part, kids were kids. There was no “peanut-free” classroom or cafeteria assigned seating, nor were any of us afraid that our child might become so allergic to something that he/she would begin carrying around an EpiPen®, an auto-injector filled with epinephrine that treats signs and symptoms of a life-threatening allergic reaction, also known as anaphylaxis.
Unfortunately, things have changed in the past 10 years; studies have shown that food allergies have increased by almost 20% in the last decade, with the biggest increase among Hispanics.
“Reported food allergy is increasing among children of all ages, among boys and girls, and among children of different races/ethnicities,” says Amy M. Branum, MSPH, of the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC. “However, it cannot be determined how much of the increases in estimates are truly attributable to increases in clinical disease and how much are attributable to increased awareness by physicians, other health care providers, and parents.”
Types of Food Allergies
There are a multitude of food allergies one can acquire; the most common allergies include: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, shellfish, soy and wheat (these are often referred to as “the big eight.” ) Allergies to seeds, especially sesame, seem to be increasing as well.
Food allergies can start at any age, but usually cow’s milk, egg and soy allergies begin in childhood and are outgrown by the age 16. Unfortunately, for those who have acquired peanut and tree nut allergies, the allergy stays with them throughout adulthood. In the U.S. alone, approximately three million people have peanut or tree nut allergies; the number of children with peanut allergies went from one in 250 to one in 125 between the years of 1997 and 2002. Fish and shellfish allergies tend to be life-long; 6.5 million adults are reported to have an allergy to the animals.
Along with plant and animal allergies, environmental allergies, such as asthma and hay fever seem to be increasing over the years as well. Celiac disease, caused by an immune system defect, has also increased. Scientists are stumped as to why allergies to both the food we eat and the air we breathe is making us much, much sicker.
Food Allergy Symptoms
So, as a teacher or parent that has a child that may have never experience an allergic reaction before, how do you recognize the symptoms? An allergic reaction can actually affect various parts of the body, including the skin (in the form of hives), the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract, and, if the allergic reaction is severe enough, the cardiovascular system.
While one child may react mildly to his/her soy allergy another child may have a peanut allergy that causes a life-threatening reaction, called anaphylaxis. Here’s a list of just some of the symptoms one would get when experiencing an allergic reaction:
- Stomach pain or cramping
- Difficulty breathing and swallowing
- Fainting, light-headedness, and/or dizziness
- Slurred Speech
When someone has this type of reaction, it requires urgent medical care and must be treated as a medical emergency. Hopefully, the child’s parent and school have discussed this issue and have in place an allergy plan. Unfortunately, that was not the case for seven-year-old Virginia student, Ammaria Johnson, who died January 2 of cardiac arrest and anaphylaxis, according to a statement from Chesterfield County police. Another child, unaware that Ammaria had a deadly peanut allergy, gave one to her on the playground. Ammaria ate it, began breaking into hives and had shortness of breath and then went to her teacher, who took her to the nurse. While the school did call 911, responding firefighters and police were unable to save her life.
A spokesman for the school district said that parents have to provide any prescribe medications to the schools, and sign a form allowing the school to give it to the child in case of an emergency. But in Ammaria’s case, no EpiPen® or other medication was given by her family to the nurse.
Universal School Allergy Policies
Due to the increase of food allergies and students visiting hospitals due to allergic shock, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Management Act (FAAMA) was signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011. This bill calls for national assistance to schools to manage students that have to deal with allergies on a daily basis. While this bill is on a voluntary basis, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, or FAAN™, is working on a bill called the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, that would encourage states to create laws that would allow school to stockpile EpiPens ® for those who don’t have prescribed pens. This law would be similar to those passed in Illinois and Georgia in 2011.
While some people are encouraged by these laws coming into the schools, other parents and teachers weren’t as excited. For example, an elementary school in Edgewater, Fla. had to rinse out their mouths twice daily to avoid spreading peanut residue to another student with a severe peanut allergy. The teachers had to monitor the mouth washing as well as hand washing, and clean surfaces continually with Clorox. All peanut products were banned, as were snacks in the classrooms and outside food for holiday parties. There was even a peanut-patrolling dog in the halls, making sure no peanuts got through the door! It all came to a head, when other parents began to complain, saying that the allergy-aware policies forced them to buy more expensive foods, such as soy or sunflower butter instead of the normal peanut butter. The food-allergy rules have become too costly—is it really worth it?
“You don’t want to be careless and make another child sick, but you really had to stop and think every day what was okay and where it was okay,” said Anita Lavine, a mother of two in Seattle, whose children’s schools also enforced extreme food allergy plans.
Although it may be hard for allergy-free families to get used to, these children are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Dr. Stanley Fineman, a board certified allergist, emphasized that although the schools are legally obligated to protect children with allergies against discrimination, the policies they enforce must also be reasonable and practical, as well as have scientific validity.
We Need a Plan Put In Place, But How Do We Do It?
If you’re an administrator, nurse or teacher and your school has no allergy guidelines put into place, there are some great links and tools on the web that can educate you on how to begin an allergy plan.
- NASN.org (National Association of School Nurses)
- Foodallergy.org (The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network)
FAAN also has a great tool that has a list of some states’ food allergy guidelines for schools. It’s a great resource if your child has recently acquired an allergy and you need to know how your schools deal with them. The Statewide Guidelines for Schools is a great help for both parents and teachers, as it’s written down plainly, instead of any legalese. The only unfortunate thing is that it doesn’t include all 50!
If you are a parent, you might also notice a one-page form that will ask you a few questions about the allergies; this is to determine if an EpiPen® will be needed on site. You can find the Food Allergy Action Plan form here.
Hopefully, your child is lucky enough to attend a school that has an allergy plan in place, but let’s not forget that you, the parent, and your child need to know as well how to manage your allergies so you can avoid any allergic reactions. Although those reactions are obviously never planned, there are some tips you can use to help keep your allergies under control.
- Your diet and lifestyle must change in order for your allergy to be successfully managed. It’ll be hard, especially for the child, but as time goes by, you’ll both get used to it!
- Avoidance of the food is the only way to prevent a reaction, because, unfortunately, there have been no prescriptions created to combat food allergies.
- If your doctor prescribed you or your child any medication, have he/she carry it with him/her at all times.
- If your child has been prescribed an EpiPen® but feels uncomfortable with it, your doctor could give him an auto-injector “trainer.” These devices look almost identical to an EpiPen®, but do not contain a needle or medication. It’s a great way to get students, parents and teachers to practice with the tool and learn how to use the real thing.
Learn all you can about your child’s allergy, and be sure to teach him/her the basics of what to do in case of an emergency. Because if you choose not to educate yourself or others, it’s like playing Russian Roulette with your child’s life.