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Teenagers with food allergies may feel unsafe at school

Children and teenagers with potentially life-threatening food allergies may feel unsafe, isolated and excluded in their schools.

Teenagers with food allergies may feel unsafe at school

Children and teenagers with potentially life-threatening food allergies may feel unsafe, isolated and excluded in their schools.

The study consulted directly with children about their experiences living with and managing a chronic medical condition that requires them to be keenly alert to their surroundings. Researchers interviewed 10 children, aged 8 to 12 years, and 10 teenagers in Canada whose food allergies were severe enough that they had to carry injectable adrenaline in case they suffered an allergic reaction.

Compared to the children, teenagers felt less confident about their surroundings at high school and the information about food allergies possessed by school personnel and parents. High schools were viewed as less safe because they didn't have homerooms, there were unsupervised lunch areas where food fights sometimes break out, and fewer staff who knew about food allergies. Elementary schools were considered safer because there was a stronger parental presence and consistent routines involving lunch rooms, trained staff and communication strategies.

The children and teenagers felt the greatest threats to their safety came from uninformed friends, school personnel and the parents of other students. Many also said a number of environmental and social barriers led to them being teased and feeling isolated and excluded.

The children tended to rely on parents and teachers to cope, while the teenagers often fended for themselves by avoiding risky foods, educating others about food allergies, trying to understand confusing food labels, and quickly leaving unsafe places. Some said they felt disempowered and overburdened and even developed habits such as constant hand washing or delaying eating until they knew there was an adult present who could drive them to the hospital if they suffered an allergic reaction.

Young people who have experienced life-threatening anaphylactic shock from specific food exposures have significantly different views of the risks associated with their allergies based on their age and can benefit from discussing their perceptions of the safety of their school environment in improving their ability to cope. The findings provide information for food-allergic children and their parents to influence school policies about food allergy risk management.
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