For many of us, a peanut is merely something that is good to eat. But for someone with a food allergy, a peanut – or eggs, soy, milk or wheat – can be a terrifying and even a potentially lethal threat.
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Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food that is triggered by the body’s immune system. The immune system responds to a harmless food as if it were a threat. From 4 percent to 6 percent of children in the United States have a food allergy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
When your child has a food allergy, you might feel concern about sending your child to school. You wonder who will make sure to keep your child safe from these threats to his or her health.
The best strategy? Enlist others and form a partnership with the people at your child’s school, says pediatric food allergist Sandra Hong, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s.
“At the beginning of the year and throughout the year, parents should be sure to touch base with the principal, the teachers, the school nurse and the cafeteria staff to make sure they know that their child has food allergies,” Dr. Hong says.
The list of people to make aware of your child’s food allergy also might include maintenance staff, transportation staff, coaches, other parents and your child’s classmates. All of these people can help manage your child’s exposure to food.
Dr. Hong say parents also should provide the school with the proper medications to treat their child’s allergic reaction and an allergy action plan. Make sure your discussions with the school staff include keeping your child’s prescribed epinephrine in a safe place, and decide who will administer the medicine if it’s needed. If your child is old enough, consider allowing him or her to carry their medicine with them at all times.
As a parent, you might worry about your child’s classmate’s birthdays or other occasions when students get treats at school. You want your child to enjoy these celebrations, but you want to make sure they participate in a safe way.
Dr. Hong suggests sending the teacher a box of “safe snacks” to keep on hand for these times. With these snacks on hand, your child can enjoy a treat and not feel left out.
Ask the teacher to encourage your child’s classmates to bring labeled food or non-food items for celebrations and give the teacher a list of safe snacks that classmates can bring for these special times that everyone can enjoy.
Alternatively, you could provide the classroom teacher with safe snacks for the entire class so that your child can eat what everyone else does.
Teach your child
For children with food allergies, preventing allergic reactions involves making good choices, advocating for themselves, and recognizing potentially dangerous situations. You can help your child by teaching him or her what to do in certain situations, Dr. Hong says.
For example, a simple strategy is to teach your child to avoid any food without an ingredients label, Dr. Hong says.
“This is an easy way to help them remember to avoid home-baked goods or meals cooked at someone else’s house,” she says.
The cafeteria staff can be an important ally, Dr. Hong says. Make sure to talk with the school’s food service director. You can find out how the cafeteria manages students with life-threatening food allergies and whether the approach works for your child. You also can explain what type of allergy your child has and what to do in the event of a reaction.
Ask if you can post a picture of your child behind the counter or register, Dr. Hong suggests.
“If the cafeteria monitors have a picture of your child and all of the other children with food allergies, then they can be better aware of who is at risk for true allergic reactions,” she says.