For starters, schools have gotten so much better at handling this issue.

By Betty Gold
Updated August 29, 2019
Credit: Getty Images

Back-to-school season is stressful. There’s the meal prep and supply shopping, extra early wake-up calls, and laundry list of new activities to worry about. But safety always comes first, and for parents who have kids with food allergies, sending little ones off to any new environment means additional time, attention, and research is required.

Food allergies are on the rise: they’ve increased by 50 percent in children in the U.S. over the last two decades. Today, there are more than 1.7 million children in the U.S. with peanut allergies. Unfortunately, the only tactic students have for treating their food allergies is avoidance. To help ease the process of preparation, we spoke with Michael Manning, MD, FACAAI, FAAAAI, of the Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Associates, Ltd.

“As the beginning of the new school year approaches, it is important to understand prevention methods in order to help avoid accidental exposure to allergens in the classroom, which may be life threatening if not handled appropriately,” Dr. Manning says. Research has shown that one in 13 children have at least one food allergy, and more than 15 percent of school-aged children with a food allergy have had an adverse reaction while at school. “Food allergens are often hidden and can be difficult to spot,” he adds. “As a result, reactions can be sudden and unpredictable, and their severity can vary from episode to episode.”

Unsure if they’re allergic? That’s normal.

It’s important to understand that any child can develop food allergies as early as infancy, although they are, in fact, more common in children born into families with a history of allergies. “Pre-school teachers should be aware of how early allergies can develop and should work in conjunction with parents if a food allergy is suspected,” explains Dr. Manning. The most common food allergies experienced are to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. “It’s also important, as a parent, to take notice if your child consistently has symptoms after eating certain foods and inform your school principal, teacher, and nurse so they can also be on the lookout during the school day.”

Share symptoms with teachers before sending them to school.

In preparation for the first day of school, teachers should educate themselves on the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction to ensure they are able to create a safe classroom environment for children with food allergies and provide peace of mind for their families. According to Dr. Manning, allergic reactions can range from mild (e.g., a few hives, tingling around the mouth) to moderate (e.g., persistent hives, wheezing, stomach discomfort, or increased vomiting) to severe (e.g., throat or airway closing, low blood pressure). “The most severe allergic reaction is known as anaphylaxis.” Signs of anaphylaxis include chest pain, fainting/unconsciousness, shortness of breath/wheezing, swelling of the lips, tongue or throat, trouble swallowing, and changes to skin tone. Find a more robust list of common symptoms for an allergic reaction to food here.

Control what you can in the classroom.

Efforts should be made by teachers and parents together to restrict common allergens in classrooms, including foods that are provided for class-wide consumption for celebrations or related events. “Tables and other furniture should be carefully wiped down with soapy water if common allergens have been present in the classroom as even trace amounts can trigger a reaction,” recommends Dr. Manning. Additionally, recent studies assessing the psychosocial burden and impact experienced by children with peanut allergies have shown that feelings of isolation from their peers is common. "The social and emotional tolls are amplified by restrictions of social activities and constant fear of exposure. Teachers must be mindful of this and work to foster an inclusive environment while educating all of their students on the seriousness of food allergies."

Understand that things happen.

Food allergens are often hidden and can be difficult to spot; as a result, reactions can be sudden and unpredictable, and their severity can vary from episode to episode. “In addition, remember that food allergy symptoms can occur immediately upon ingestion of the allergen, or if the allergen comes into contact with a sensitive area, such as eyes,” Dr. Manning says. Usually, food allergy symptoms will clear up in about a day following appropriate treatment, whereas airborne allergy symptoms can last up to several weeks or longer.

Despite taking careful precautions and preventative measures, the reality is that allergic reactions may happen in certain instances. School nurses and other caretakers must be sure that epinephrine is available and that their staff is trained on how to use it in its different auto injector forms in the event of an emergency. For a full list of ways that caretakers can help minimize risk of accidental exposure to food allergens or ingestion in the classroom, check out the Food Allergy Research & Education’s guide here.