Allergies are an increasing concern for educators and parents, with the last National Center for Health Statistics data finding approximately 3 million children under the age of 18 reported a food or digestive allergy in the previous twelve months.
At the time of the study in 2007 the incidence of allergies was found to be 3.9%, a figure which might seem insignificant on paper, but in reality puts allergic conditions as among the most common medical conditions affecting children in the US – on average there are two allergy sufferers in every classroom.
With the prevalence of allergies continuing to increase in Western countries – with no clear answer as to why – it’s essential that teachers, parents and students understand why allergic reactions occur, their effect on the body, and the best methods for prevention and treatment when they happen.
What Are Allergies?
For reasons not fully understood, the body’s immune system sometimes gets confused and treats harmless substances as if they were toxic. These substances are called allergens, and commonly include foods (particularly milk, eggs, peanuts, nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish), pollens, dust, insect stings and animal hair.
What are the symptoms?
The body’s overreaction to allergens can result in symptoms ranging from mild to full-on anaphylaxis, which is potentially fatal. Symptoms can include:
- Itchy, tingling or burning mouth and tongue
- Runny nose
- Coughing and difficult breathing
- Dizziness and vomiting
What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis describes a particularly severe reaction that can be life-threatening and requires urgent medical attention. Teenagers and young adults are at the highest risk of fatal food-induced anaphylaxis. The condition needs to be treated as quickly as possible with an injection of adrenalin, which can be obtained on prescription and can be self-administered if necessary. Once the adrenalin has been administered, the patient needs to be observed for several hours in case the anaphylaxis recurs.
How can allergic reactions be prevented?
Elimination of harmful foods from the immediate environment, where possible, is the best way to treat food allergies. Banning foods entirely, however, is not necessarily recommended as it can foster a sense of complacency and can’t always be properly enforced. More important is to ensure that staff, students and members of the community are educated about anaphylaxis and the risks associated with allergies.
While it’s useful to be aware of students who suffer from allergies, it’s also important not to rely solely on this information. Sometimes students and their parents won’t be aware of a particular allergy until a reaction occurs; similarly, allergies can develop at any age, meaning children may have reactions to foods they’ve eaten with no trouble before. Again, awareness and training is essential for ensuring the health and safety of every member of the school community.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides excellent guidelines for the prevention and treatment of anaphylaxis in schools.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.