The thought of sending your food allergic child back to school can be terrifying. The scariest part for many parents is that a child can be unknowingly exposed and reactions can be life threatening.
Food allergies affect roughly 1 in 25 school-aged children. Reactions can vary and include itchy rash (hives), facial swelling, breathing problems and even death. An allergic reaction can occur within minutes or up to hours after exposure.
Any food can cause a food allergy, but milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish cause most food allergies. Nut reactions are the most common causes of severe reactions and the one most talked about at school and in the media.
There is no cure for a food allergy, and strict avoidance is the only way to prevent a reaction. So how can you help your food allergic child be safe at school and other activities?
Talk to your child’s school. Let the teacher, school nurse and the principal know your child’s allergies and the plan of action if he is to be accidentally exposed to anything he is allergic to.
If your child has severe allergies, ask the teacher or other parents to enforce hand washing after eating snacks and lunch. Wiping down lunch tables between each lunch period can also help.
For severely allergic children I highly recommend packing a lunch so that you know absolutely for sure that what your child is eating is safe. If your child is interested in buying cafeteria food, check out the school cafeteria menu ahead of time and do research on the ingredients in each food item so your child knows what he can or cannot eat. Many districts and food services now have lists of the most common food allergies and if such ingredients are in each meal.
Encourage and enforce a no trading or sharing of food or snacks both during school and at after school play dates or activities. Teach your child not to eat a food if there is a concern for a food allergen or cross contamination. Let them know to ask a teacher or administrator for help immediately if they start to feel any reaction such as an itchy rash, swelling of lips or face or trouble breathing
Avoid desserts brought in by classmates or parents, especially those prepared at a classmate’s house, not in a prepackaged container with an ingredient list.
Send a bag of non-perishable treats safe for your child that the teacher can hold onto for such times and replenish it throughout the year. That way your child won’t feel left out and will always have a safe snack or treat for special occasions.
PLAN OF ACTION
Make sure you school has a food allergy plan of action as well as any medications (i.e. epinephrine pen, antihistamines) your child may need and what medication to give for each symptom. Here is a link to a food allergy plan for you and your doctor to fill out for our child’s school: http://www.foodsafeschools.org/FSAG_CD/Resources/FAAN/Food_Allergy_Action_Plan_English.pdf
Don’t forget to touch base with your allergist and pediatrician regularly and make sure your child’s medications are up to date and always accessible to your child, no matter where she is. Your pediatrician or allergist can perform tests to track your child’s food allergies and watch to see if they are going away. About 20% of peanut allergic kids will outgrow their allergy. In the meantime, with a little preparation and planning you can help keep your food allergic children safe at school.