Handling food allergies in high school

By Amy MacLachlan on February 11, 2014

My five-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts and possibly chickpeas. For now, I don’t worry too much – I’m with her on play dates and at the park, and her Ontario school is aware of her allergies and stocked with EpiPens and pertinent procedures.

But when she starts high school, it will be different. Lunches won’t be monitored, she may head out with friends to eat at someone’s home or a fast-food joint, and she may not speak up for fear of being teased.

“Teenagers are the most at-risk group for anaphylaxis for several reasons, including social changes, peer pressure and an increased incidence of risk-taking,” says Anaphylaxis Canada’s website (anaphylaxis.ca). Yikes. 

So what’s a teen – and a worried parent – to do? At a conference on allergies last summer, members of Anaphylaxis Canada’s Youth Advisory Panel (YAP) spoke candidly. What teens don’t want, they said, is a nagging parent constantly reminding them to bring their EpiPen to school.

Instead, parents should teach their children – before they enter high school –how to take responsibility for their allergies, coaching them on how to ask about food safety, explain their allergy and what to do in an emergency.

“Going into high school brings with it a completely different atmosphere,” said panelist Hannah Lank, 16, who has an allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. “Now I have to make sure I carry my EpiPen at all times, and manage people eating my allergens around me at lunch.”

Hannah attends a Winnipeg high school with 1,350 kids and no allergy policy. “Sometimes teachers even eat nuts in the classroom. People don’t understand the significance of food allergies. You have to educate them yourself.”

So Hannah started Canada’s first food allergy club – a great way to meet others with allergies and gain support – and speaks to Grade 9 classes about anaphylaxis. 

While she no longer carries her EpiPen in a wearable pouch – it just isn’t “cool” – she always has it in her purse or backpack (and her friends know how to use it if she has a reaction). Other precautions include bringing her lunch from home, never sharing water bottles – a common practice on sports teams –and avoiding bake sales. She also wears a MedicAlert bracelet.

Anaphylaxis Canada estimates 300,000 children under 18 have food allergies. Since 2006, schools in Ontario must have an anaphylaxis plan, although implementation varies, particularly in high schools. Other provinces have their own levels of security. 

“It is important for schools to not only promote their allergen policies in a high school setting, but explain why they exist,” says Kyle Dine, YAP’s program coordinator. “Events and assemblies can definitely help in this discussion.” 

Sadly, telling peers about their allergy can put students at risk of being bullied. As reported in Allergic Living magazine, “food-allergic children in Grades 6 to 10 were more than twice as likely to be bullied as non-allergic students.”

That can be anything from teasing to dangling a peanut butter sandwich in front of an anaphylactic teen’s face, to even hiding peanuts around the classroom.

Emily Rose Belbin, 15, said she experienced some bullying in middle school.

“I felt excluded by my classmates and friends. They would make me feel like there was something wrong with me,” says Emily, who is allergic to peanuts. “One person said to me he didn’t care if I died.”

Now in high school, Emily has a good group of friends that look out for her, and she stresses the importance of communicating openly with her parents.

Hannah has been lucky. She takes the direct approach and so far hasn’t got any push back. But she says you can’t drop your guard. “Always read labels, ask questions, and always be prepared,” she said. “My allergies are only one aspect of who I am – they don’t define me!”

Travelling With Allergies

Anaphylaxis Canada recommends these tips for travellers with food allergies:

  • Learn how to say the name of the allergen in the country you are visiting if English is not the first language.
  • Ask airlines and resorts what allergy policies they have in place. 
  • Research the food labelling requirements at the travel destination. 
  • Learn the emergency numbers in the country being visited. Not every country uses 911!
  • Alert the flight attendant to severe allergies when boarding a plane. When seated, wipe the area down with sanitizer and be sure to let near-by passengers know about the allergy. Keep the epinephrine auto injector close by, not in the overhead compartment.

 

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.


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