At the start of every new school year, parents are faced with the ever-present issue of food allergies. Parents of food-allergic children must manage the complexities of this condition, while those with allergy-free kids must comply with a series of restrictions. Food allergies are a fact of life that no one can ignore, since children’s lives are at stake.
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is an exaggerated response of the immune system caused by eating an otherwise harmless food item. Unlike other allergies, such as to pollen or animals that, while very uncomfortable, are not life-threatening, food allergies can lead to potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. Therefore, food allergies require strict measures to ensure people with these allergies don’t come into contact with the food in question.
What is an anaphylactic shock?
Anaphylactic shock is a serious allergic reaction that can occur suddenly and can lead to death. Various symptoms can occur during anaphylaxis:
- Skin reaction: hives, swelling, itching, rashes, etc.
- Respiratory reaction: wheezing, shortness of breath, choking, coughing, etc.
- Gastrointestinal reaction: vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, etc.
- Cardiovascular reaction: drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness, etc.
If your child suffers from a food allergy and is at-risk for severe reactions, like anaphylactic shock, his or her teachers, afterschool daycare service providers and principal must be notified.
The top allergens and some substitutes
Food allergies are triggered by a variety of foods, notably:
- Peanuts (substitute: soy butter or seeds)
- Nuts and sesame
- Milk (substitutes, as sources of calcium: enriched soy or rice beverages)
- Fish, mussels and crustaceans (substitutes, sources of Omega-3: flaxseed or chia)
- Wheat (substitutes: gluten-free products made of rice, quinoa or corn)
Some products are “certified allergen control,” which ensures an optimum control of certain allergens (peanuts, almonds, milk and eggs).
Safety measures at school
All elementary schools have protocols for managing food allergies. Many schools still ban certain foods, typically nuts and peanuts. However, this approach doesn’t protect children with other allergies, to wheat, milk or eggs, for instance, which are ingredients in many foods.
It is unrealistic to think that schools can ban all food allergens. This is why more and more institutions have stopped prohibiting specific foods to favour prevention instead. According to this approach, the school trains its staff members to take prevention measures, as well as to recognize the symptoms of an allergic reaction and to use epinephrine auto-injectors.
All children should do their part to ensure a safe environment, regardless of whether or not they themselves are allergic. For example, children should:
- Wash their hands before and after eating
- Never share food or utensils with a friend
Whatever the school’s approach, parents must always declare all their children’s allergens to school authorities and provide epinephrine auto-injectors. According to age, the child’s auto-injector can be entrusted to the school staff or he or she can carry it. It is highly recommended the child also wear an ID bracelet or necklace (like those made by MedicAlert).
Parents should take the time to meet with their child’s caregivers every new school year to discuss the school’s allergy action plan, especially if changes have been made, and to share any information that can help the school better help their allergic child.
A useful tip: The “spare” lunch box
It’s the responsibility of parents of allergic kids to provide school lunches and snacks. To compensate a forgotten lunchbox or, in the case of older kids who eat at home, a forgotten key or bad weather that keeps them at school, it’s a good idea to keep a second lunch box in the child’s locker. This spare lunch should contain foods that stay good for several months at room temperature. For example, you could include a can of pasta (choose a can with a tab or add a can-opener), vegetable juice or canned fruit, an individual portion of fruit salad or cookies.
Services at your pharmacy
Your family pharmacist can answer your food allergy questions, and explain—or even show you—how to use an epinephrine auto-injector. Don’t hesitate to ask!