Parents

How to keep a child with food allergies safe at school

Back-to-school time means extra worry for parents whose children have food allergies.

About one in 13 children suffers from the problem, which translates into roughly two kids in every classroom.

Although the human body can have a reaction to almost any food, the biggest culprits are peanuts, tree nuts such as almonds and walnuts, seafood, eggs, dairy, wheat and soy.

There are about 9,500 hospital visits each year involving children for food allergy-related reasons, according to the CDC. But many parents whose children don't have food allergies don't understand the severity of the problem.

"As a parent, you should definitely be in contact with the school and develop a team who can help to care for your child," Dr. Gary Pien, an allergist at the Summit Medical Group, told TODAY's Natalie Morales and Willie Geist.

"It behooves you to let others know so they can take actions and be safe for everyone."

If your child has a food allergy, Pien and TODAY diet and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom offered these tips to make sure they stay as safe at school as at home:

  • Inform the teachers and the school nurse about your child’s allergies. Make sure they understand the severity of problem: Be specific and accurate because the spectrum is broad.
  • Talk to the cafeteria supervisor to see what accommodations can be made and what menu options may be safe.
  • Have an allergy plan on file at the school in case of an emergency.
  • Teach your child age-appropriate facts about their allergies and that they should not share snacks with other children.
  • Provide some non-perishable snacks — such as bags of popcorn, baked potato chips or a pack of licorice — for your child to keep at school, at the teacher’s desk, or the main office. That way if there is an unplanned celebration, your child will have easy access to treats, not just "healthy" options if the other kids in the class are having treat foods.

Kids with food allergies can be self-conscious about it, but there are many cool, subtle ways to alert others around them about their dietary restrictions, Fernstrom said. Special bracelets, necklaces, stickers and even temporary tattoos can do the job without scaring their friends, she noted.

Parents should also be aware that some kids can become socially-isolated or bullied because of their food allergies. The TODAY anchors read a letter from a mom who said her son became depressed when he was made to sit at a "nut-free" table. That's when parents should take action, Fernstrom said.

"This is a no-peanut table, not a no-friend table," she stressed. "The mom can get a hold of any of the playmates and plan a lunch for two or speak to the mom of the non-allergic kids and say, here are the things to have (for a safe lunch)."

If your children don't have any food allergies, it's still important to find out whether any of their friends do so you can prepare safe snacks and know what to do in case of an emergency, Pien said.

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Note: This story was first published in 2014 and updated August 15, 2017.

Correction: An earlier version of this story and video included a statistic about the number of food allergy deaths that was not supported by data. That statistic has been removed from the story and video.

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