With summer officially over and the school year already in session, some parents may still find themselves adjusting to their youngsters heading back into the classroom. After all, the summertime offers some much-needed relief; three months of the year, parents can monitor their children more closely, including their eating habits. So for parents whose children have special dietary needs, such as food allergies and intolerances, heading back to school can be a particularly stressful time.

Approximately six million children suffer from food allergies, an immune system reaction that occurs shortly after eating a particular kind of food, usually in the form of a severe allergic reaction called “anaphylaxis.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently found that the incidence of these food allergies among children has steadily risen since 1997. Two years later, the CDC found that food allergies actually increased by over three percent, and has continued to rise by over five percent in the last 10 years. Some common foods that make up 90 percent of these food-allergy reactions in children include milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, and soybean.

Although these figures may not be alarming to the medical community, there is a strong possibility pediatricians and allergy specialists will continue to see a prevalence of children with food allergies. According to Dr. Chitra Dinakar, an allergist and immunologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, there are a number of reasons why food allergies are so pervasive among children in today’s society. One factor is known as the “hygiene hypothesis.”

“Children in developed countries have less exposure to a variety of bacteria and germs because of how hygienic their surroundings are,” says Dinakar. “If there is less of that exposure, then your body starts switching to more of an allergic response because the immune balance is upset and starts reacting to harmless, normal agents such as ragweed or peanut or dust mite that you should be tolerant to.”

Dinakar, who is also a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), says if your child suffers from a food allergy the only real treatment is strict food avoidance, as trace amounts of the allergic response foods can potentially cause a fatal allergic reaction. However, in the instance your child has intolerance to certain foods such as milk or gluten, a condition when the body can tolerate food but simply cannot properly digest it particularly when consumed in large quantities; studies have shown these children can outgrow these intolerances over time.

Whether your child suffers from food allergies or food intolerances, Dinakar advises parents to work closely with their child’s pediatrician or physician as well as their school’s health administrators and nurses to ensure their health is being properly monitored during lunch and snack times throughout the day. Make a list of foods your child should avoid and share it with the school health administrators. Also provide a prescription epinephrine injection in case they experience an allergic reaction at school.

If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, recognize you are not alone. Food Allergy Research and Education estimates 1 in 13 children is diagnosed with food allergies. Seek the support of other parents of children with food allergies and offer them your support. You can work together in your school to help the health administrators and the children cope. You should also talk to your child and advise them not to trade lunch with friends. Let them know if they ever feel scared or concerned about something they ate at school they should let their teacher know immediately. You might also consider a food allergy medical alert bracelet.


Parent’s Back-To-School ‘To Do List’

  • Receive an accurate diagnosis from your child’s doctor (i.e. food allergy vs. food intolerance).
  • Have the doctor provide a “food allergy action plan” or a list of foods your child should avoid as well as an epinephrine prescription; provide these for the school nurse in case of an allergic reaction.
  • Inform school administrators and other staff about your child’s health needs; make sure to leave your contact information with your child’s teacher.
  • Check with your child’s school to see if it provides dietary alternatives.
  • Create your own food allergy support group with other parents at your child’s school.
  • Get in the habit of reading food product labels; encourage your child to do the same.