MONDAY, Dec. 24 (HealthDay News) -- Many children with food
allergies may be bullied at school -- sometimes with potentially
dangerous threats to their physical health, a new study
The study, of 251 families at a New York City allergy clinic,
found that about one-third of kids said they'd been bullied
specifically because of their food allergy.
The bullying usually happened at school and often took the form
of teasing. But in many cases, the children said classmates
threatened them with the food to which they were allergic -- waving
it in front of them, throwing it at them or saying they would sneak
it into their other food.
"With food allergies, that kind of bullying does carry a theoretical physical risk," said Dr. Jay Lieberman, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, in Memphis, who was not involved in the study.
Food allergy symptoms can range from hives, swollen lips and
stomach pain to potentially life-threatening reactions where
children can't breathe and their blood pressure plummets.
In the United States, an estimated 4 percent to 5 percent of
kids younger than 18 have a food allergy, according to the American
College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. A handful of foods,
including peanuts, cow's milk, eggs and fish, account for most.
Because parents of food-allergic kids are usually vigilant about
avoiding the culprit foods, severe allergic reactions are
fortunately rare, said Dr. Eyal Shemesh, the lead researcher on the
"What really affects these children's lives is everything that surrounds the allergy -- the food avoidance, the anxiety," said Shemesh, an associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City.
And bullying, apparently, can be part of the "everything" that
surrounds kids' food allergies. Children could get stigmatized at
school, experts say, when classmates have to, for example, avoid
bringing peanuts and peanut butter to school.
Peanuts, even in small amounts, can cause a serious allergic
reaction. And simple skin contact with a peanut product can trigger
Both Shemesh and Lieberman said it's important for parents,
schools and doctors to be aware that food allergies can make kids a
target for bullying.
The study, reported online Dec. 24 and in the January 2013 print
Pediatrics, included families at one New York City clinic --
most of whom were white and upper income. So the bullying rate may
not be representative of all kids with food allergies, Shemesh
But the results back up a 2010 study that Lieberman worked on.
In that one, a similar percentage of kids -- 35 percent -- said
they'd been bullied because of their food allergy, with most saying
it happened more than once.
This new study, Lieberman said, went a step further by asking
kids about their quality of life -- including their emotional
well-being and how they were getting along at school. It turned out
that children who were bullied reported a lower quality of life
than their food-allergic peers who were not targeted.
On the other hand, among kids who were bullied, those who'd told
their parents reported a better quality of life.
It's not clear why that was. "I don't know if the parents did
something about the bullying," Shemesh said. "I just know they knew
It is always possible that parents called the school or
otherwise helped their child. Or, Lieberman said, some kids may
have just felt better after talking with their parents.
Whatever the reason, Shemesh suggested that parents ask their
children if other kids have ever bothered them about their food
At the same time, he said, "I don't want to be alarmist. And we
are not trying to say that the bullies are 'villains.'"
It may be that kids doing the bullying do not understand how
serious food allergies are, Shemesh noted. So it's possible that if
they get more education on it, that will put an end to the bullying
in some cases.
Education about food allergies -- for kids and adults -- could
help, agreed Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at
Boston Children's Hospital.
Parents of classmates, he noted, may unwittingly encourage
bullying if they complain because they can't send their child to
school with grandma's famous peanut butter cookies.
"When it comes to food allergy, people often roll their eyes," Schuster said. "They think that kids are just trying to avoid a food they don't like. And they may not understand that food allergies can be serious."
Schuster also suggested that parents of kids with food allergies
be aware of the possible "clues" that their child is being bullied
-- such as not wanting to go to school, appearing down, and
complaining of chronic stomachaches or headaches.
Learn more about food allergies from the
and Anaphylaxis Network.
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