10 Things to Know About Food Allergies in the Classroom

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Parents of allergic children are left to negotiate a safe environment with those who may not be familiar with the reality of food allergies. Here are key points that teachers and parents should know about food-allergic children.

Food allergies can be fatal

Children with food allergies have had severe and even fatal reactions from trace amounts.  Children have died consuming foods served with utensils that were cross contaminated with traces of milk or peanut.

Labels only tell you so much

Any food can be an allergen, yet in the United States, only the eight major allergens have to be labeled.  In addition, a product can be processed on lines with potent allergens like peanuts or tree nuts and the warning labels (i.e. “may contain”) are voluntary.

Allergic reactions are unpredictable

Once an allergic reaction starts, there is no way to tell how it will progress.   A mild reaction can progress to a life-threatening one within minutes.  There is no way to predict the course of any allergic reaction.

It's a balancing act

We realize you’ve known other parents whose child had a “mild peanut allergy” and that child was allowed to eat “X” or do “X” so you believe that is safe.  They may have been lucky! We allergy parents take the utmost care in balancing our child’s need for safety with her need to live a “normal” life.  There are no do-overs here, so please trust our judgment.

Allergy parents live in a different reality

We understand that you may see us as anxious and over-the-top, but we live in a different reality than you do. So when we ask our child to politely decline your homemade cookies, it’s not personal.  Until you live in the allergy world, or very close to it, you can’t imagine the myriad of ways that an innocent food can become deadly for someone with food allergies.

Classroom parties are a minefield for unsafe treats

To you, a classroom party is fun so you tape adorable peanut butter hearts to your daughter’s valentines.  To us, classroom parties are a minefield of unsafe treats, with twenty 6-year-olds with sticky fingers contaminating desks, pencils and books. Even if an allergic child doesn’t mistakenly eat an allergenic food, there is still a risk of him putting a trace amount into his mouth or eyes to cause a reaction.

Do the math

Up to 79 percent of allergic reactions in school requiring epinephrine occur in the classroom! In fact, any activity outside of the day-to-day routine creates additional risk.  Parties and classroom celebrations pose even more risk with untrained adults (classroom parents) preparing, touching and serving homemade foods, including  desserts and baked goods, which is the food group that causes most anaphylactic reactions.

We are responsible for our child's health

We know that our child will eventually be an adult who has to manage his allergies on this own. He will also have a car payment and a mortgage and he’ll hold down a full time job—but not in second grade! We realize that gradually handing over the responsibility is one of our most important parenting tasks, but we have to do so with care.

There is no cure

Word of a potential cure was all over the news, but these treatments are experimental and have only been conducted on a handful of children.  At this time, there is no widely available treatment for food allergies other than emergency medicine –epinephrine. (Epi-Pen ®)  This is not the same as taking aspirin for a headache. This is medicine to save a life and after administering the Epi-Pen our child must be transported to the emergency room.

Think about prevention

Imagine what would happen in your school district if an allergic child consumed a cross-contaminated snack at a classroom party, and she suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction. Several states that have passed food allergy guidelines have done so after an anaphylactic reaction claimed the life of one of their students.