New Resource Helps Educators Respond to Food Allergies

It’s Halloween season, and little ghosts and goblins will soon be racing around school in their most frightening costumes. But what scares a lot of their educators is the danger lurking in some of the Halloween candy kids bring to school. Many contain ingredients like nuts that can cause anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that happens very quickly and may lead to death if not treated promptly.

Food allergy is a growing public health problem that many schools face –about 8 percent of all children have food allergies, with young children affected most. According to a study released in 2008 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was an 18 percent increase in food allergies among children between 1997 and 2007.

Between 16 and 18 percent of school aged children with food allergies have had a reaction in school, but most educators have no idea what to do if a child allergic to peanuts unwittingly eats a Snickers bar her friend gave her on the bus.

“We know more and more of our students have serious food allergies, but very few educators know how to help a child having an allergic reaction — all we know is that you have to act quickly,” says Nicole Ickes, a second grade teacher at Church Lane Elementary Technology School in Randallstown, Maryland.

A food allergy attack can happen anywhere throughout the school day. Kids sometimes sneak snacks on the bus, they have bake sales in the halls or common rooms, they have food at classroom parties, and on the sidelines at sports games and practices.

With that in mind, NEA’s Health Information Network (HIN) recently published The Food Allergy Book: What School Employees Need to Know. The booklet emphasizes that saving kids from severe food reactions is a team approach, and must involve all staff – whether in the classroom or cafeteria, or on the playground, athletic field, or school bus.

“The NEA Health Information Network and the U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered to publish this important resource,” says Jerry Newberry, Executive Director of NEA HIN.  “The booklet is designed to educate all school employees about food allergies and how they can help to prevent and respond to food allergic reactions in schools, because awareness and education leads to prevention, and prevention saves lives.”

The Food Allergy Book defines food allergies, lists the most common types, and explains in detail what the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction would be – common signs to look for include swollen lips and tongue, wheezing and trouble breathing, vomiting, pale or blue skin tone, or even fainting.

It also explains how epinephrine is the primary treatment for severe reactions, and that early administration improves the chances of survival and quick recovery.

During a reaction, epinephrine is injected into the thigh muscle using a safe automatic device called an auto-injector. The medication rapidly improves breathing, stimulates the heart, reverses hives, and reduces the swelling of the face, lips and throat. It’s very important to administer it as soon as possible if a severe reaction – anaphylaxis – is suspected. Immediate access to epinephrine is essential.

The book also recommends that kids with food allergies have an individualized food allergy Emergency Care Plan on file at school  so everyone knows what to do in the event of a reaction. The plan would include all food allergens, medical and dietary information, signs and symptoms of a reaction, treatment plan for reactions, medicine location and dosage instructions, assessment of whether the child can carry his own epinephrine auto-injector, avoidance and prevention strategies, and emergency contact information.

“This booklet should be handed out and read by every educator at every school,” says Ickes.  “It could literally save a child’s life.”

The Food Allergy Book is free, offered in English and Spanish, and is available in print and online. Visit NEA HIN for more information.