School Nurses at Ground Zero for Food Allergies

TUESDAY, March 20, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Food allergies are common among American kids, with nearly one-third of U.S. school nurses reporting at least one severe reaction to food among their students in the last school year, a new survey finds.

But the survey, of more than 200 school nurses nationwide, also uncovered some good news.

Ninety-six percent of the nurses said school staffers had been trained on how to handle severe allergic reactions to food. And 80 percent said their school had an emergency epinephrine auto-injector available to treat potentially life-threatening allergic reactions.

"We were encouraged to see high rates of epinephrine availability in schools," said senior study author Dr. Ruchi Gupta, of Children's Hospital of Chicago.

"This is significant improvement over the last decade. We also saw that epinephrine was available more often when schools had full-time nurses. Greater nurse presence appears to be an important factor in implementing food allergy policies in schools," Gupta said.

Most of the respondents worked at a public school and at an elementary or middle school.

The findings were published recently in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Food allergies affect up to 8 percent of U.S. children, and as many as two students in every classroom, the researchers noted.

There are no standardized food allergy protocols for schools, but recommendations are offered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of School Nurses.

The nurses in the current survey pointed to some areas in need of improvement.

Their responses indicated the least implemented policies: labeling of school lunch items with allergen information; specific food policies for after-school activities; and not having emergency epinephrine with students on field trips or other activities away from school.

"Listing allergen information on foods sold during lunch at school is critical to protect kids with food allergy from accidental ingestion," said Gupta, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University School of Medicine.

The top eight allergens -- peanut, tree nuts, milk, eggs, shellfish, fin fish, soy and wheat -- must be listed clearly on all food products, he added.

"We also know from previous studies that up to 19 percent of life-threatening allergic reactions to food during the school day may occur outside of the school building or on field trips. Given this high risk, we need to promote the availability of emergency epinephrine to keep children with food allergies safe during these situations," Gupta said in a journal news release.

Given these survey results, she said, "we need to continue working together with families and schools to develop feasible policies that protect children with food allergies."

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on food allergies.

SOURCE: Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, news release, March 13, 2018

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