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Food Allergies Special Needs Factsheet

What Teachers Should Know

A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system, which normally fights infections, reacts to a food as an invader. The immune system responds by releasing chemicals such as histamine into the body, triggering an allergic reaction.

Lots of kids have food allergies — about 3 million in the United States alone. The most common food allergies are to:

  • peanuts and other nuts
  • seafood (fish and/or shellfish)
  • milk products
  • eggs
  • soy
  • wheat

Allergic reactions can cause:

  • itchiness, rash, or hives
  • runny or stuffy nose, sneezing
  • itchy, watery eyes
  • coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing
  • abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • swelling
  • throat tightness and hoarseness
  • lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting

Even if previous reactions have been mild, someone with a food allergy is always at risk of a serious reaction called anaphylaxis, which can be life threatening and requires immediate medical attention. In some children, even touching or inhaling a food they are allergic to can result in anaphylaxis.

Students who have food allergies may need to:

  • carry an epinephrine injector (it looks like a pen) for emergencies
  • wear a medical alert bracelet
  • go to the school nurse to take medicine or assess reactions
  • have special seating accommodations during lunch to avoid reactions
  • have alternative snacks or foods for lunches, snack times, or classroom parties

What Teachers Can Do

The best strategy is to simply have your allergic students avoid the foods and drinks that contain the allergens. Be sure to read through the ingredients on food labels before handing out food and avoid using foods with the allergens in your classroom.

Some studies have shown that students with food allergies face a higher risk of being bullied. Help other students understand the special precautions required due to food allergies.

Students at risk for food allergies must have a plan for handling emergencies. Make sure you, the students, parents, and school nurse all know where the epinephrine injector is stored and how your student will get it quickly if needed.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013