Going back to school is an exciting time, but some stress accompanies the excitement for those with allergies. As a student with a nut allergy, I must take serious safety precautions to prevent having an allergic reaction at school.
Obviously, the most high-risk time during the school day is at lunch. I must be very cautious if eating any food from my school cafeteria. Just like ordering at a restaurant, I speak directly to the chef at the cafeteria about the ingredients of different dishes. The cafeteria staff direct me to foods that are safe for me and tell me ones to stay away from. Even so, there is always a risk of cross-contact or times when I feel uncertain. Generally, I feel safer making my lunch at home. Not only is it tastier, it allows me to know every ingredient that is in the food I am eating. I know best what is safe for me, and I prefer to eat comfortably with no issues or anxiety.
However, the risk at school extends beyond just what I eat. Even if someone else is eating nuts near me, I can still be in danger due to mere exposure to nuts through the air. Airborne allergic reactions could occur when a person with an allergy inhales dust or particles of their allergen. These particles can spread through the air or sit at tables or other surfaces in trace amounts. While it is unlikely that I would go into anaphylactic shock from airborne exposure, there is still a risk of a more mild allergic reaction, like hives.
At my school, the cafeteria has a designated table for students who bring foods with nuts. This policy helps the great number of students with nut allergies reduce their exposure, thereby minimizing the risk of a reaction. However, while the school tries to encourage students to use the tables through signs and informative emails, it is nearly impossible to enforce this policy. They cannot check the ingredients of each student’s lunch for nuts. Additionally, there are only tables designated for nuts. The policy does not help protect students with allergies to other foods.
In the classroom
Other issues could arise outside of the cafeteria in classrooms. For instance, some students eat snacks in class before lunch. In that case, it is more difficult to avoid the allergen because classrooms are much smaller than a cafeteria. (Smaller rooms = heightened exposure). This problem has come up several times for me. I have found that the best solution is to make sure my classmates and teachers are aware of my allergy.
Some teachers ask at the beginning of the year if anyone in the class has an allergy to prevent an incident from ever arising. But most of the time, I only mention it when someone is eating nuts. In this case, I will speak to my classmate individually. I politely explain my allergy and request they eat their snack at a different time. In my experience, my classmates have both been respectful and understanding, agreeing to refrain from eating nuts in the classroom. Fortunately, the situation has never escalated, and I have never had a reaction in school. Despite my classmates being accommodating in the past, I sometimes feel nervous or uncomfortable speaking up to a classmate. I don’t want to upset anyone or seem controlling, but in the end, safety is more important.
My school also addresses this issue by labeling specific desks as allergen-free in each classroom. Students consuming food that contains nuts in the classroom cannot sit at these desks in order to reduce the cross-contact of airborne allergens. Even before COVID-19, the allergy-safe desks were regularly cleaned with special cleaning procedures to ensure no food residue is on them.
Another similar issue occurs when there are class parties celebrating holidays. The teachers will bring in a variety of snacks or request that students bring in food to share with the class. These items range from store-bought goods to homemade desserts to products from the bakery with unknown ingredients. I am able to avoid any risks in this situation by not eating any foods that I am unfamiliar with, especially ones without labels. I usually just bring snacks of my own that I know are safe for me to eat.
In case of emergency
One of the most important safety measures I take is making sure I have an easily accessible epinephrine auto-injector at all times. I carry it with me in my school backpack, so I have it with me wherever I am throughout the school. This serves as a security blanket in the scenario that I have an allergic reaction.
There are always risks for students with allergies wherever they go. Fortunately, there are also several ways to prevent an allergic reaction. A combination of cautiousness and mindfulness can help reduce the possibility of an allergic reaction. These precautions help keep all students safe.