Combating Peanut Allergies in Schools

Forget about obesity concerns, food allergies, specifically peanut allergies, have been the nail in the coffin for in class snacks and have been the bane of lunchrooms. Fewer and fewer schools are allowing snacks during class time, and virtually none allow for children to bring in home-made treats for fear of dealing with an anaphylactic episode. And who would blame them? Effects of peanut allergies can range from an insignificant rash to death. But why has this affliction become so prevalent in schools, specifically elementary schools and what can be done to combat the increasing prevalence of food allergies?

Allergies are a reaction of the body’s natural immune system to a generally non-threatening stimulus. The immune system codes antibodies molecules which, when they come in contact for their specific stimulus, cause a various array of reactions like hives, swelling, and rashes. These antibodies are coded early on in a person’s life and continue to be coded in adulthood, but at a slower rate. It is thought that infancy is when food allergies are developed. Fortunately, it has been suggested that since these allergies are developed early, avoidance of peanuts until the age of four significantly reduces the child’s probability of developing an allergy. Furthermore, almost all children outgrow most food allergies but only 20% outgrow their peanut allergies by age 5. This window of food allergy between infancy and age 5 is the reason food allergies are more common in preschools and elementary schools.

But what about the children that do not outgrow their food allergies? What can be done for them? Conventional wisdom suggests that these individuals should follow a strict diet and avoid all contact with their “trigger” food. As anyone with a food allergy could tell you, this is an exhausting way of life. Although not yet widely practiced, there has been research suggesting that immunotherapy can make significant strides in reducing or eliminating allergic reactions. Under the supervision of a physician, and over a long period of time, immunotherapy introduces small traces of the allergen to an individual and gradually increases the dose until accidental contact (a small but tangible amount) of the allergen yeilds very little allergic effect. This could lead to a vast improvement in the quality of life in the individual.

By understanding when and how food allergies develop, we have a theoretical way to reduce the food allergy phenomenon. With future studies and research, we may be able to alleviate individuals and even schools of the dangers and inconveniences of food allergies.