Last year, the National School Boards Association issued allergy guidelines: Safe at School and Ready to Learn: A Comprehensive Policy Guide for Protecting Students With Life-Threatening Food Allergies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also expected to release national school guidelines for food allergies.
But here are some basics. Allergic reactions can range from throat itch to throat closing, hives and vomiting. So you should talk with a doctor if you think your child may have a food allergy. Remember, too, that "reactions are unpredictable," writes John Lehr, CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education, in an email. "You can have a history of mild reactions, and then suddenly experience anaphylaxis without warning." For that reason, anyone with a food allergy should carry two auto-injectors of epinephrine, which treats anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.
Below are some more tips for navigating a highly allergenic world:
• In the case of a severe reaction: Pistiner says to follow these three steps: Inject the child with epinephrine, call 911 and alert the child's parents.
Call 911 first in case the reaction requires more epinephrine, and call parents last to save time, he explains. Consider practicing with an auto-injector, and don't be afraid to use it, he says.
• If you are the parent of a child with food allergies: Have an action plan and share it. That means briefing anyone caring for your child with his or her needs. Lehr suggests providing schools with "a written food allergy management plan" specifying how to enable your child's safe and full participation in school activities and respond to any allergic attacks.
• If you are caring for a child with food allergies: You'll need to know how to read labels and understand issues regarding cross-contamination, with the basic rule being, "If you can't read it, don't eat it," Pistiner says. "It's not a job that people need to necessarily take on or jump right into. It's something that getting all the information and learning how to do it and feeling comfortable is going to be really important." Children with food allergies can also bring their own snacks or treats to play dates or other occasions. Seymour, for example, typically packs a treat for her daughter to enjoy at birthday parties, where the cake is off-limits.
[Read: When Nutrition Labels Lie.]
• If you are ever around someone with a food allergy, which is to say, everyone: Have a little compassion. "Food allergies are for real," Pistiner says. "They need to be taken seriously in all circumstances and at all times." And the help of others will make all the difference to children with food allergies, he says. "It can allow them to have great play dates and parties and experience all the fun things that kids without food allergies can, and the more understanding and support the other families have, the easier it's going to be to pull this off."
Clarified on 10/04/2013: A previous version of this story failed to note Michael Pistiner’s current affiliation. He is a pediatric allergist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates.