A Parents’ Guide to Food Allergies at School

More kids than ever have food allergies, it seems. Here’s what you need to know if your child’s classmate is one of them.

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Why Do We Hear So Much About Food Allergies These Days?

While you may not remember any of your grade-school classmates having a food allergy, the odds are that at least two kids in your child’s classroom have been diagnosed with one, according to a 2011 study in Pediatrics. The reason for the rise in food allergy diagnoses is unknown, but it does mean that awareness is also rising, and more schools are putting guidelines in place to keep these children safe.

What Happens If a Child Eats a Food He or She Is Allergic To?

If a child is allergic to peanuts, for example, her immune system incorrectly thinks peanuts are dangerous and tries to protect her from them by releasing into the bloodstream chemicals that can trigger a range of reactions—anything from a runny nose and wheezing to immediate, life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Note that a food allergy is different from a food intolerance, which means the person has trouble digesting a particular food properly. With a true food allergy, even a trace amount of the food can trigger a reaction, and there’s no way to predict how severe it will be, which is why parents and children must be vigilant in avoiding these allergens. Some children may have prescription medications that they carry with them (or keep in the classroom or nurse’s office) in case of an allergic reaction.

Which Foods Cause Allergic Reactions?

Eight foods cause 90 percent of food allergies: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. Since children—especially young ones—share toys and supplies, some classrooms have strict policies against sticky foods like peanut butter that can easily travel on busy little hands: Kids can ingest a potentially dangerous dose not only by eating but also by rubbing their eyes or nose with contaminated fingers. Seemingly innocuous craft materials, like empty egg or milk cartons or certain kinds of clay, can also contain potential hazards.