"The one thing that makes food allergy different from bullying because of, say, obesity, is that in addition to the emotional and psychological distress, you run the risk of a physical harm if the allergen is indeed placed in food," said lead study author Dr. Jay Lieberman, assistant professor of allergy and immunology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis.
Lieberman noted that the survey respondents did not report any allergic reaction due to intentionally contaminated food, presumably because the food-allergic kids saw it being done and didn't eat the food.
To what extent the teasing or bullying was malicious versus reflecting a lack of understanding about the severity of food allergies isn't known. But food-allergy experts say they've heard plenty of stories -- a child with a peanut allergy having peanut butter smeared on his backpack, or a child with a dairy allergy having milk sprayed at his face through a straw.
"A lot of kids and a lot of parents don't really get that this is life threatening," said Maria Acebal, CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "But we also see the most pernicious kind -- 'I know that this will harm you and I'm going to harm you.'"
There are several explanations for why having food allergies may make kids a target for teasing, experts say. Any time a child is "different" -- whether it's wearing glasses or not being able to eat the same foods as other kids -- other children can seize on that, Acebal said.
But societal attitudes also play a role, including a lack of awareness that something as seemingly innocuous as eating a cookie that has a trace of peanut in it can trigger a fatal reaction in some people, she added.
And food allergies are the butt of jokes on TV and in movies, she said.
"I think our society knows better than to say, 'Ha, ha, there goes the kid in the wheelchai
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