When children have food allergies, their parents have to constantly watch out for allergens and be prepared for a possible reaction.
Another concern, and one that is often overlooked, is bullying. A new study, published online in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, found that more than 30 percent of children have been harassed by their classmates because of their allergies, and that parents are only aware of it about half of the time.
"It's very easy to intimidate a food-allergic child," said study author Dr. Eyal Shemesh, chief of the division of behavioral and developmental health in the Department of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. "It doesn't take more than waving a peanut in front of them."
Shemesh and his colleagues surveyed 251 families recruited at a food allergy clinic. Overall, 45 percent of the children and teens -- who were between the ages of 8 and 17 -- said they'd been bullied, and 31.5 percent said it was because of their food allergy. The bullying was most likely to happen while they were in school and included others teasing them, waving food in their face, throwing food at them, or forcing them to touch the food that triggers their allergies.
The more frequent the bullying, the worse the child's quality of life, the study found. But just one instance of bullying took a toll on kids' happiness, according to self-reports.
The study also showed there is a significant gap in how much parents know about bullying -- they only knew about 50 percent of the cases of harassment. When moms and dads did know about the bullying, their children reported a higher quality of life, which suggests that parents can help, Shemesh said.
"Parents should ask, not in an alarming way, something like, 'Do people bother you at school or anywhere? Do people bother you about the allergy?'" he said. Doctors, whether they are pediatricians or allergy specialists, should also be aware of possible food-related bullying and speak up.
"Clinicians should not be intimidated or think that children will not talk to them about it," Shemesh said. "This study shows they will."
Nearly six million children, or 8 percent of kids in the U.S., have food allergies. A 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reported an 18 percent increase in food allergies in the U.S. in the last decade for reasons that continue baffle scientists. Allergic reactions can be very serious: A 2011 study found that every three minutes, a food allergy reaction lands someone in the emergency room.
"Living with a food allergy is emotionally stressful, since the only way to prevent a potentially life-threatening reaction is to be vigilant about avoiding problem foods," said John Lehr, CEO of the Food Allergy Research and Education organization. "When children with food allergies are bullied by being exposed or taunted with a food they are allergic to, it heightens anxiety and creates a sense of isolation."