It happens—and probably more often than you might think. Indeed, every three minutes someone with a food allergy reaction ends up in an emergency room. That makes for more than 200,000 such visits every year.
And that’s both a very big deal and a growing problem, though no one is sure why. Says the CDC, food allergies in children increased some 50% between 1997 and 2011. The result: now one in every 13 children, 18 and younger, is affected—or about two in every classroom. Indeed, peanut allergies alone have more than tripled.
Meanwhile, about 15% of children don’t even know they have an issue until that first allergic response–often at school.
These eight culprits account for some 90% of all serious allergic reactions:
- Crustacean shellfish
- Tree nuts
Some can be outgrown, such as milk and eggs, but not so others, and the bad news is there’s no cure. Reactions run the gamut from mild—as in itchiness—to anaphylaxis whose potentially life-threatening symptoms can include:
- Swelling of throat, lips, and/or tongue
- Difficulty breathing
- Dizziness or fainting
- Nausea or vomiting
- Falling blood pressure
Truth be told, between 100 and 200 Americans actually die from food allergy-induced anaphylaxis each year.
The only treatment: an epinephrine auto-injector, otherwise known as an Epi-Pen. It delivers a measured dose of the drug and is often a life-saver. Timing is critical, however. Explains Sally Schoessler of the National Association to School Nurses,“You need a very quick response when it comes to administering epinephrine for anaphylaxis.”
All this puts schools on the front lines, and you can be assured that they’re doing their best. Take, for instance, such Montgomery County school districts as Souderton and North Penn. Together they have some 578 affected children. To keep them safe, their schools . . .
- Set up meetings with the parents and the school nurse.
- Have the school nurse visit these children’s classrooms to discuss food allergies.
- Send a letter alerting all parents.
- Keep the classrooms as allergen-free as possible.
- Ask parents to avoid sending in nut- and peanut-laden snacks.
- Allow affected children to keep “safe snacks” in the health suite for celebrations.
- Offer allergy-free cafeteria tables, which are cleaned with extra care every day.
- Alert cafeteria workers about children with food allergies.
- Discourage all kids from sharing what their parents have packed for them.
At the same time–and since almost 90% of America’s schools now have one or more children with a food allergy–the CDC has come up with a list of school guidelines:
- Avoid using foods identified as allergens in class projects, parties, snacks, science experiments, and cooking exercises in allergic children’s classrooms.
- Train staff to use injecting devices for the medication epinephrine (such as Epi-Pens) when students have severe allergic reactions—known as anaphylaxis.
- Make sure children with food allergies are not excluded from field trips, extracurricular activities, physical education, or recess.
- Consider designating food free-zones or allergen-safe zones.
- Use non-food incentives for prizes, gifts, and awards.
And because the alarm has now been sounded, 16 states this year alone joined 11 others in enacting laws to make it easier for schools to stock epinephrine. Four of them—Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, and Virginia—require schools to have it on hand at all times. The others allow schools to do so without a prescription for individual students and all “provide legal protection for staff members who administer it.”
In Pennsylvania, legislation is pending, with fingers crossed that it passes soon. After all, it takes just one peanut . . .