New Threat to Kids: Food-Allergy Taunts

In the past few years, there have been several media reports of children being bullied with the very food or substance that causes them to have an allergic reaction.

There have been reports of a student sprinkling the remnants of a peanut butter cookie into the lunch box of a peanut-allergic classmate; reports of peanut butter being smeared on the arm of an allergic student; and threats of kissing or hugging an allergic student after eating a peanut butter sandwich. This type of behavior has been labeled allergy bullying, and it can be physically harmful and potentially lethal.

A food allergy creates a particular vulnerability in a child — an Achilles' heel of sorts. This identifiable weak spot can make your child vulnerable to bullying.

As mentioned above, some kids will use a food allergy to taunt and threaten a classmate. They think it's funny to wave a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the face of an allergic student to see the look of terror in his eyes. A bully will chase an allergic child, threatening to shove down his throat the food that he is allergic to.

For parents, just the thought of this type of behavior sends chills of fear down their spines, because parents of kids with food allergies understand the extreme danger of such behavior.

Essential

According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing public awareness, advocacy, education, and research on behalf of food-allergy sufferers, food allergy and anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) is a growing public health concern. It is estimated that about 3 million children in the United States suffer from food allergies.

Some parents of kids with food allergies think that parents of non-allergic kids may inadvertently foster insensitivity and, at times, contempt for allergic kids. For example:

Barbara receives a letter from her son's school requesting that no foods containing peanut butter or peanut butter products be sent in for snacks or lunch. Barbara is distressed by this news because her son, Frankie, refuses to eat anything but peanut butter and jelly for lunch. Barbara's husband walks in the kitchen and Barbara holds up the note and says sarcastically, “They should put all those kids with peanut allergies in one classroom and leave the normal kids alone! What am I going to send in with Frankie? He adores peanut butter and jelly and now he can't have it at school! It's just so unfair!”

Barbara doesn't realize that Frankie overheard her. When school starts, Frankie realizes that he'll never be able to have his favorite sandwich for lunch and he's mad about that. When Frankie discovers that it is Doug who has the peanut allergy, he decides to make him pay. Frankie starts to harass and bully Doug every chance he gets. One day, he sneaks a bit of peanut butter into school in his backpack and smears it on Doug's pencil. Doug picks up the pencil and writes with it for a few seconds before he realizes that it has peanut butter on it. Doug has an allergic reaction and is rushed to the hospital.

Fact

The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network reports that in the U.S., food allergy is the leading cause of anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) outside the hospital setting. Recent analysis of data from U.S. hospital emergency departments also estimates that out of 20,821 visits, anaphylaxis (including 520 hospitalizations) due to a food allergy counted for 2,333 visits in just a two-month period.

The problem with this scenario is that the very children who should be protected are being targeted and picked on for things that are beyond their control. A child with an allergy is not responsible for that allergy, and nothing he does will get rid of it.

When parents fail to educate their kids on the necessity of helping to ensure vulnerable kids' safety — or worse, when they ridicule or bully those kids — significant damage can occur. Kids wind up not knowing the severe and life-threatening impact their bullying and irresponsible behavior can have on their victim.

Kids might think that an allergic child might get a rash or be wheezy for a while or have a stomach ache. And it's true that many kids who have allergies have symptoms that are mild or bothersome, such as a runny nose, itchy throat, throat tightness, shortness of breath, hives, wheezing, cough, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, or diarrhea. Some kids may not realize that an allergic child can die as a result of exposure to certain foods. And if they do know the potential consequences of their actions and choose to taunt and threaten allergic kids with the food they are allergic to, they are engaging in criminal behavior.

Alert!

Anaphylaxis (ah-nuh-fuh-lax-sis) is a sudden, severe allergic reaction that can cause a life-threatening physical reaction. Blood pressure drops, airways narrow, and a child's tongue can swell, impeding the ability to breath. Each year in the U.S., approximately 150–200 people die as a result of anaphylaxis caused by a food allergy.

Allergy and anaphylaxis education is necessary for parents, students, and school personnel. And strategies should be put into place for avoidance of food allergens and early recognition and treatment of symptoms in the event of accidental exposure.

For children with severe allergic reactions, early administration of epinephrine (an adrenaline that is available in a self-injectable device) is vital. The parents of kids without allergies should try to put themselves in the shoes of parents who have kids with food allergies. Think about it: The average parent worries enough about their child becoming the victim of a traditional bully at school. Imagine that the bullying (in this case exposure to peanut butter) could be fatal for your child in mere minutes. How would you feel?

At this point in time, there is no known cure for food allergies. Because of this, it has become essential that school personnel, parents, and students understand food allergies and the life-threatening consequences of exposure. Death can occur within minutes if a student is unable to receive treatment for anaphylaxis.

Despite the fact that over 90 percent of American schools have students with food allergies, there are no current standardized guidelines for managing life-threatening allergies in schools. Support for such guidelines has been expressed by numerous organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of School Nurses, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, and more.

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