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Allergies in the Classroom: Myths and Misinformation

I have been a member of the allergy community for about 17 years (actually this week is my allerversary, when I first developed a very serious reaction known as anaphylaxis to a food product that for most is completely harmless). Navigating the allergy world for myself and then later, also my child, is a challenging universe.

Here are some important fact that every teacher should absolutely know:

  1. Allergies exist to almost every thing known to man. We hear so much about peanuts and the “top 8” that many do not realize other allergies exist to almost anything that is edible. More over, and please read this sentence twice, any allergen can be a trigger of anaphylaxis ( a life-threatening reaction which causes the airways to swell, the blood-pressure to drop, and can lead to cardiac arrest). Wheat, dairy, soy, etc. can have a range of reactions depending upon each individual. And yes, dairy and wheat (or any other allergy) can trigger anaphylaxis. If a child in your class has a declared allergy, it is imperative that you make yourself aware of what their symptoms are and what to watch for. Make sure you understand what previous reactions have been and if they have a history of anaphylaxis. Just because it isn’t peanuts or tree nuts, don’t assume that the reaction will be “mild.”
  2. Know the child’s emergency plan. This is a plan that is put in to place by the child’s allergist. You should know when to EPI and what the recommendation is about giving antihistamine. Often times the answer is EPI NOW, ask questions later. But again, that is a conversation to have with the school nurse in regards to that child’s specific plan.
  3. Don’t assume anything. I never gave any food item to a food allergic child without first having the parent approve the ingredient list. I once found that a peanut product was used as a stabilizer in a giant tub of plain chocolate ice-cream. Also, trust me when I say that as food allergic individual, we become the experts of label readers. An allergen can be in a “hidden ingredient” that the average person would never suspect. Let the experts (ie. the parent) do the checking!
  4. Don’t send home treats with kids to be checked out by their parents. The child may decide to eat it en route and what’s worse not have help near by if needed.
  5. Better yet, don’t have food based treats in the classroom at all if possible. Please and Thank-you!
  6. Watch for allergy based bullying. There have been instances where children have becoming dangerously ill because they had their allergen thrown at them. (Yes, any contact with a mucous membrane may trigger a reaction). Additionally, mental and emotional harm is very hard to reverse. Children with food allergies already walk a very difficult line of feeling isolated and feeling safe. Make it your goal to make sure your classroom is a safe environment for that child and do not allow their physical, mental or emotional well-being to be threatened.
  7. Become educated. Food allergies are often associated in pop-culture as being “uncool” (okay, they are a bum deal, but it doesn’t make that person uncool). They have even been the butt of jokes on kid or comedy shows. Understand the emotions that come with allergies. While, individuals with food allergies may report higher feelings of anxiety, it is not the anxiety that triggers the food allergy but rather the food allergy that triggers the anxiety.

Remember, the food-allergic person is only one mistake away from a potentially life-threatening experience and many have already experienced that in their young lives. That is a lot of weight to bear. Let’s make our classrooms allergy friendly.

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