The start of the new school year can be especially stressful for parents of children with food allergies. They are sending them from the safety of home to an environment full of potential dangers. Affecting 1 in 13 children in the United States, it's an issue for a lot of families. Among the most common food allergies: milk, soy, egg, wheat, peanut, tree nut, fish, and shellfish. Even if you are careful about what you put in your child's lunch, you have no idea what other life-threatening allergens their friends are munching on. So The Stir has enlisted the help of top pediatric allergists to create a survival guide for moms of students with food allergies.
1. What is the best way to prepare your child before school begins?
Dr. Sarah Silverman, Mt. Sinai Doctors - Brooklyn Heights Medical Group: The three most important rules in food allergy are: 1) knowing what you are allergic to; 2) avoiding that food and 3) knowing what to do if you accidentally ingest that food. These three axioms need to be discussed with the child no matter their age. For older children, they can better understand the need to avoid a food, many can recall when they had a reaction to the food and did not feel well. The younger children will not grasp the gravity of the situation, but can be told to stay away from a particular food and to avoid eating any food that has not been given to them by a parent or caregiver.
It is also important to alert a child to symptoms of an adverse reaction- such as rash, itchy skin, itchy throat, cough, trouble breathing, etc. If they develop any of these symptoms they should alert an adult immediately. Having the child wear a medic alert bracelet is also a good idea. There are some really cool kid-friendly styles out there and letting the child choose their bracelet can be a good activity as well as a good teaching moment for the child about the dangers of food allergy.
2. What kind of conversation do you need to have with teachers or school administrators?
Dr. Sandra Hong, Cleveland Clinic: Make sure they and you feel comfortable with the level of concern and understanding for your child's allergy, and make sure they understand the severity of reaction the child can have. Parents should also talk to them about accidental exposure and be sure they know what to do- including knowing how to use the form of epinephrine they are bringing. Another conversation should be about what's happening in class and ensuring they are not preparing crafts in class with allergens or allowing your children to eat foods not approved such as baked goods.
3. What's the best way to handle playdates?
Dr. Silverman: Unfortunately, playdates can be dangerous for children with food allergies. The person hosting the playdate needs to be alerted of the child’s food allergy. They also need to be told what to do in case of accidental ingestion- i.e. giving Benadryl or using an EpiPen or Auvi Q device and calling 911. If snacks are to be served at a playdate, the parents/caregivers of the allergic child should approve them ahead of time or bring special snacks for their child that they know are safe. It will be less intimidating for the person hosting the playdate if they are educated about the situation and know what to do in case of an emergency.
4. Should you ask the school to insitute a nut-free policy?
Dr. Sliverman: It is very common for school lunch rooms to have a safe area for food allergic children to eat. However, if this is not the case, it might not be a bad idea to ask the school to create a “nut-free” or “peanut” free zone. Kids like to share food so if the allergen is allowed in school, it can potentially make its way to the child. It is important to note that even “nut and peanut-free” environments can contain hazards since anytime outside food is allowed, there is always potential for exposure to the allergen. In addition, a child’s teacher should be alerted to the allergy and if outside food is brought into the classroom (such as for a birthday party), the parents should be alerted ahead of time so a safe snack can be provided for their child.
5. How do you help other students in the class understand the dangers?
Dr. Hong: As an allergist, I have gone to schools and taught about the severity of allergies as well as the issue of bullying kids with allergies.
6. Are some allergies just too severe for a child to attend school?
Dr. Silverman: I do not believe that any child should be kept home from school due to a food allergy or even multiple food allergies. It is a very rare instance in which the mere smell of a food or inhalation of minute particles of a food would cause an anaphylactic reaction in an allergic child -- though the media makes it sound more common than it really is. As long as the parents/caregiver, child, teacher, nurse and school administration are aware of the food allergy, they can help create a safe environment for the child. There is no reason to isolate a food allergic child or make them feel different from their peers because of their allergy.
7. Are there any new treatments for curing food allergies?
Dr. Hong: There have been some success with desensitization's. Baked food ingestion has been helpful to develop tolerance in children with egg and milk allergies.
8. Why do so many children suffer with these allergies?
Dr. Hong: This is very difficult to determine. There is a thought that we are too clean and sterile. There are also theories that revolve around feeding children allergenic foods too late and vitamin D deficiencies; however, there is no set explanation right now and the answer may be multifactoral.
If you are a parent of a child with food allergies, will you try any of these tips?
Image via U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr