Dealing with anaphylaxis in schools

Anaphylaxis in schools
If your child suffers from a severe food allergy, sending them to school every day can be a daily battle of trust for parents, particularly if the school doesn’t seem to be taking it seriously enough. Jo Willacy reports.

Shockingly, many schools do not seem that clued up when it comes to dealing with an anaphylaxis emergency. Now the Government is stepping in and putting the onus on schools to make appropriate arrangements for supporting pupils with long-term health needs, in a proposed amendment to the Children and Families Bill. ‘It is not soon enough,’ says Mandy East, National Coordinator at the Anaphylaxis Campaign. ‘Every school is likely to have at least one child who is severely food allergic and nut allergy is particularly common, with one in 50 children nationwide thought to be affected. In severe cases of anaphylaxis the reaction will include nettle rash anywhere on the body, swelling of the throat and mouth, severe asthma, nausea and vomiting. In very severe cases there may be collapse and unconsciousness, although this is rare,’ says Mandy.

This reaction can, in some children, be caused simply by breathing in the food particles that someone else has eaten or touching a surface that had the food item on it and putting their hand to their mouth. The seriousness of the symptoms need a very quick reaction using an injection of adrenaline (also called epinephrine) delivered into the muscle in the side of the thigh. It is vital that it is administered as soon as symptoms of a severe reaction appear because if treatment is delayed the consequences can be fatal. This is why it is essential for schools to have several members of staff on hand who know exactly what is required in this situation and can react quickly.

Severe food allergy: the primary-school parent's action plan

If your child suffers from a severe food allergy the Anaphylaxis Campaign suggests the following:

  • Notify the school and make sure there is clear communication about your child’s particular food issue
  • Work with the school to develop a plan throughout the school including in the classroom and the dining areas and any extra clubs or activities your child attends at the school
  • Make sure your child’s medication is in date (check it regularly)
  • Educate your child in how to manage the allergy themselves, including what are safe and unsafe foods for them, avoiding allergens, how to spot the symptoms of an allergy and how and when to tell an adult of a reaction 

'A piece of toast with peanut butter on it felt like a loaded gun to me'

Tamsin Schwab, 41, is mum to Jack, 11 and Sam, five and they live in London with dad John, 41. Jack was diagnosed with a cashew nut allergy when he had a near fatal allergic reaction when he was aged three, while they were on holiday in Menorca.

‘Jack had been eating peanuts since he was 18 months – John is American so we often fed him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When he had the anaphylactic reaction from eating cashew nuts – when we literally thought we were going to lose him – it was a total shock to us and it changed everything. It is life-threatening, and although it's not like other diseases, there is a constant reminder of how careful you have to be.

'When it first happened Jack had just started nursery and I had this sense that I just wanted to take him away. I cried every time I dropped him off. At primary school it became a case of us learning along with the school, who had never had a pupil with this issue before. I found it hard to tell other parents not to bring in nuts to school in the beginning, but when I saw a child carrying a piece of toast with peanut butter on it, it felt like a loaded gun to me. Luckily one of the staff at the school took it upon herself to take the issue on board and was brilliant – we couldn't have done it without her. I was on the phone to her most weeks and she would write letters to parents to tell them not to send their child in with nut-laden muesli bars.

'It still took me to when Jack was in the last year of primary at aged 11 – years of being a dramatic mother and making a big issue of it – to relax and trust the school to deal with it. Now he is at secondary school, he is much more in control of it himself.

'If your child has been recently diagnosed, make sure you talk to the school nurse or the member of staff who is first aid qualified, as well as the class teacher. You need to stress the potential seriousness of the situation and not worry about being an annoying mother. It is possible to relax about it, but you do need to have your strategy in place and trust not only your child but school staff as well.'