Bullied Over Food Allergies

Surveys: 1 in 3 Kids With Food Allergies Teased or Harassed

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 9, 2012 (Orlando, Fla.) -- Parents of kids with food allergies should be aware that their children may be teased or harassed because of their condition, experts say.

Some bullies even chase kids with the allergy-producing food or throw it in their faces, says A. Erika Morris, MD, of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

She headed one of two surveys that showed that about 1 in 3 food-allergic kids is taunted or physically abused at school due to their allergies.

That figure is "only a little out of proportion" to the number of children overall who are teased or bullied by their classmates for everything from their weight to their hairstyle, says Todd Mahr, MD.

Mahr, director of pediatric allergy/immunology at the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis., and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' allergy & immunology section, reviewed the findings for WebMD.

"But it's something most parents -- and a lot of us who take care of food-allergic kids -- don't think about," he says.

Indeed, one of the surveys showed that 32% of parents of kids harassed about their food allergies were unaware of it.

Not surprisingly, classmates and siblings most often did the bullying, both surveys showed. But in a few cases, teachers or other adults were to blame.

The surveys were presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Bullying, Food Allergies on Rise

The findings come at a time when both bullying and food allergies in kids are on the rise. In 2007, about 1 in 3 middle school and high school students reported having been verbally or physically abused at school, an increase of 17% since 2001. Nearly 4% of children reported food allergies in 2007, an increase of 18% since 1997.

Morris and colleagues administered a 16-question survey to 32 food-allergic children or their parents in the Jackson, Miss., area; 81% were aged 5 to 11 years. Most were allergic to peanuts or eggs.

Results showed that 11 children, or 34%, had been bullied: Ten of the cases involved verbal teasing and six involved physical abuse, including being pushed, tripped, hit, or struck by the offending food.

"One child had an allergic reaction as a result," Morris tells WebMD.

Eight of the 11 children had also been bullied for other reasons, including their size or age.

The second survey, led by Scott Sicherer, MD, of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, involved 111 food-allergic children aged 8 to 17 in that city. Their parents were also surveyed.

Overall, 29% were "bullied, harassed, or teased" due to their food allergies.

Sicherer's previous survey, in 2010, was the first to show that food allergies can make kids -- and adults -- a target of bullying.

Tips for Parents

While much larger surveys are needed to draw firm conclusions about the proportion of kids bullied due to food allergies, the findings sound a cautionary note for parents, Mahr says.

"Open a dialogue with your child so they know it's OK to talk to you about the problem. A lot of kids are embarrassed to mention being teased or abused, or are afraid their parents will make the situation worse," he says.

Also, "talk to the staff at school to ensure they know about the potential problem. It's important to deal with this early so it doesn't become a pattern," Mahr says.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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SOURCES: 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Orlando, Fla., March 2-6, 2012.A. Erika Morris, MD, fellow, University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, Miss.Scott Sicherer, MD, assistant professor, pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City.Todd Mahr, MD, director, pediatric allergy/immunology, Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center, La Crosse, Wis.; chair, allergy & immunology section, American Academy of Pediatrics.

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