Family Health

Food Allergies: Staying Safe at School

I love my son’s school. He’s in first grade. His teacher is caring. The staff is supportive, and they’re constantly involving parents in the education process. 

However, one thing I do not love (and I hear many parents cheering along here) are the astoundingly restrictive snacks/food policies. For parties, he’s only allowed to bring store-bought and sealed food from an approved list. This lengthy list designates things such as regular Oreos being allowed, but not the birthday cake flavored version. 

Their reasoning? Food allergies and keeping kids safe. And as a pediatrician, I totally get it. In fact, it makes me appreciate my son’s school all the more.

What is a food allergy?

Having a food allergy means a person’s immune system reacts wrongly to certain proteins in food. It mistakes them for serious allergens, which then causes problems in the body. 

It typically only takes a small amount of the offending food to cause an allergic reaction. That reaction can range from something as simple as a rash or itchy mouth to something as serious as severe swelling, inability to breathe or even death. 

Reactions to food allergies typically occur anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after ingestion and/or exposure, depending on the severity of the allergy. If a person is allergic to a specific food, they will have the reaction every time they are exposed. 

What foods cause allergies?

Over 90 percent of food allergies come from one of the following “Big 8” foods:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy milk
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Shellfish

Most food allergies, such as those to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish, typically last for a person’s entire life. However allergies to milk, egg, wheat and soy often resolve during childhood 

Who gets allergies?

Having a food allergy is one of the most common health conditions. About 5 percent of children in the U.S. have some type of food allergy. Allergies are diagnosed by a doctor, typically after a person has a reaction. That could include symptoms such as: 

  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Itchy mouth
  • Cough
  • Vomiting 
  • Swelling 

Doctors may do blood or skin tests to determine what a person is allergic to. 

Can allergies be treated or cured?

The mainstay of management for food allergies is to avoid the particular food. This is why schools such as my son’s have such strong restrictions on what foods may be brought to class. There is no quick fix medication to prevent a food allergy. 

Medications such as injections of epinephrine (like from an EpiPen) can help reverse or minimize a reaction if one occurs. Depending on the type and severity of allergy, people can try to work with an allergist (a doctor who works specifically with allergies) to “desensitize” the body to particular allergies, but this is not usually a fast or easy process. 

While it may seem like overkill to have seemingly draconian restrictions on food in schools, and I have heard such complaints from parents in clinic (“Back in my day people just made cookies or cupcakes.”), the restrictions are in place to keep kids healthy and safe. Food allergies are not a joke or being blown out of proportion. The goal is that every child should be able to participate in all activities without fear or risk of such nasty food allergy reactions. 

As always, if you have noticed a rash, vomiting, itchy mouth, or other complaints from your child after they try new foods, or simply have more questions about food allergies, don’t hesitate to talk to your Methodist Physicians Clinic pediatrician. 

About the Author

Pediatrician Dr. Matthew Gibson is dedicated to the health and well-being of children. He loves researching the latest health information and passing it on to parents so they can keep their kids happy and healthy.

Dr. Gibson shares his knowledge with patients at Methodist Physicians Clinic.

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