Approximately six million children in the U.S. have one or more food allergies, and among children with food allergies, 16-18% have experienced a reaction at school. At any time, school staff may need to respond to a food allergy emergency—whether in the classroom or cafeteria, or on the playground, athletic field, or school bus. That’s why it’s important for educators to know about food allergies and understand their role in helping to prevent and respond to allergic reactions in schools.
Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food, triggered by the body’s immune system. In individuals with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly responds to a food (known as the food allergen) as if it were harmful, triggering a variety of negative health effects.
Common food allergens found in the school environment include:
• tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
• shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
Non-food items can contain food allergens such as modeling clay and paper mache (may contain wheat), crayons (may contain soy), and finger paints (may contain milk or egg whites).
Allergic reactions vary from mild to severe and can appear within minutes to hours after exposure to a food allergen. Common symptoms include swollen lips/tongue/eyes, itchy/flushed skin, rash, hives, wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. More serious symptoms include pale or blue skin color, weak pulse, dizziness, fainting, confusion, shock, drop in blood pressure, and loss of consciousness.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that happens quickly and may cause death. It may cause a student to stop breathing or experience a dangerous drop in blood pressure. Epinephrine is the primary treatment for severe allergic reactions, and early administration improves the chances of survival and quick recovery.
Managing food allergies in schools is a team effort involving all school staff, parents/guardians, and health care providers.
To learn more about food allergies, including how to prevent and respond to a food allergic reaction, revisit our website to access “The Food Allergy Book: What School Employees Need to Know.” This new booklet was developed through a cooperative agreement with the US Department of Agriculture and is available in English and Spanish.