Bullying, Asthma, and Food Allergy: What Can Be Done?

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MIAMI, Sept. 29, 2016 /PRNewswire/ — Victims of bullying feel powerless and vulnerable, which often produces devastating psychological consequences (severe depression or even suicide). Early identification of potential bullies and victims is critical for intervening effectively to stop the cycle of bullying and to prevent harmful or even fatal outcomes. Once a child or adolescent has been identified as being at risk for bullying or victimization, he or she should be referred to a mental health professional experienced in dealing with such problems.

The most important step parents, physicians, and other professionals can take to combat bullying is to promote prevention. Health care professionals are encouraged to volunteer to train families, students, and school personnel in the risks and consequences of bullying.

When bullying involves asthma or food allergies, effective collaboration among the allergist, the mental health professional, the family, and the student’s school is necessary for effective prevention and intervention. Children with chronic illnesses like asthma and food allergies are more likely to be teased, harassed, or bullied.

Students with allergies must bear the additional burden of taking care of themselves medically with the knowledge that not doing so could be fatal.

Children with asthma often miss school, have limitations on physical activity, experience attacks during the school day, and express feelings of sadness. These factors can lead to problems with social adaptation and an increase in bullying by peers and even adults. Studies have shown that a reduction in parental smoking, improved asthma control, and diminished worry about their child’s health are all associated with reduced likelihood of being bullied.

Food allergies affect an estimated 8% of school children (9.5% in Florida), almost double the number of few years ago. Teens with food allergies describe school-related problems as limited social activities, limited food choices, being a burden to others, and peer misunderstanding due to lack of education about food allergies. When a child with food allergy is singled out, it increases the likelihood that the child be bullied. About 25% of children with food allergies are bullied, teased, or harassed. For children over five, the figure is 35%, and among students in grades six through 10, it is as high as 50%.

The impact of bullying in all forms is profound and pervasive, producing

  • emotional distress;
  • underachievement and diminished productivity;
  • potential physical damage or even death because of injuries, anaphylaxis, or suicide;
  • somatization of stress.
  • feeling sad, depressed, or embarrassed.

It is critical that an allergist has confirmed the presence of a food allergy. A positive skin or blood test without a history of an allergic reaction does not constitute a true food allergy, and in most cases the food does not need to be avoided. Inappropriate labeling of a child as having multiple food allergies indirectly contributes to bullying.

With true food allergy, exposure to the allergen can lead to anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that can result in death. Schools and parents must make every effort to prevent the child from ingesting food allergens and to be prepared to treat in case of reaction.

The emphasis should be on how to recognize an allergic food reaction, how to treat an emergency with an epinephrine auto-injector, and not on “banning” foods at school. Having a peanut-free school, classroom, or cafeteria is not an evidence-based intervention. An injection of epinephrine is the only treatment that will prevent progression of symptoms of anaphylaxis.

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