Kids With Nut Allergies Feel Teased, Excluded

August 16, 2011

By Amanda MacMillan

TUESDAY, August 16, 2011 ( — Amanda Santos wanted to send her 5-year-old daughter, Skylar, to a small private school. But after they interviewed, met the teachers, and submitted Skylar’s medical records, they never heard back from the school, despite repeated inquiries.

Santos, who lives in Fairhaven, Mass., can’t say for sure why communication was cut off so abruptly, but she’s convinced that Skylar’s severe nut allergy was an issue.

“They knew going in that she had an allergy; they said it was no problem,” says Santos. “But until we sat down and had a meeting about the precautions they’d have to take—kids washing their hands, asking parents not to send nuts to school, that kind of thing—they didn’t realize how severe it was. I just think they didn’t want her there, didn’t want to deal with all of that.”

Santos is not alone. According to a new study conducted in the UK, families with children who are living with this potentially life-threatening condition often feel isolated, stigmatized, or unfairly excluded from activities, due to the allergies.

In many ways, nut allergies feel more like a disability than a chronic illness because of the stigma, the researchers say.

“Families reported some really very difficult and unpleasant experiences when they were trying to keep their child safe from risk,” says coauthor Mary Dixon-Woods, professor of medical sociology at the University of Leicester.

She was surprised by the study’s results.

“I was expecting to hear about problems with labeling and so on, but the extent of the stigma families reported was very troubling,” she says.

Peanuts are the most common food trigger of life-threatening anaphylactic shock, accounting for more than half of all fatal food-induced allergic reactions. Peanut allergies are on the rise, doubling in children between 1997 and 2002. About 1% of children in the U.S. have peanut allergies.

Along with the rise in nut allergies have come more restrictions on schools and other public places, including nut-free classrooms and airplanes, as well as better labeling for products.

In recent years, there has been a bit of backlash against the greater focus on nut allergies. In 2008, Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas A. Christakis published in the journal BMJ an editorial called “This allergies hysteria is just nuts.” While noting that allergies are a real problem, he wrote about the “overabundance of caution” at his children’s school and an incident in which a school bus was evacuated because a peanut was found on the floor.

To determine some of the challenges faced by parents of children with nut allergies, Dixon-Woods and her colleagues interviewed 26 families about their coping strategies and techniques for avoiding dangerous situations.

Next page: Birthday parties were “nightmares”

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