Kids with food allergies are frequently bullied and harassed by their classmates and even their teachers, a new study finds.
About 35 percent of children over the age of 5 who are allergic to certain foods have experienced harassment, taunting or bullying at school because of their allergies, researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York found.
Eighty-six percent were teased repeatedly, most often by classmates. But more than 20 percent of kids reported they were harassed or taunted by their teachers and other school staff.
The study, published in the October issue of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, is the first to examine the social implications of food allergies in children.
“Bullying usually happens with an imbalance of power,” lead author Dr. Scott Sicherer, a pediatric allergist at Mount Sinai Medical Center, told AOL Health. “This is another example of an imbalance. A child with a food allergy can’t participate in some of the activities that other children can, so the teasing occurs.”
Researchers quizzed 353 parents and caregivers of children who were allergic to certain foods. More than 43 percent of the kids studied reported having the food they’re allergic to waved in their face, 64 percent endured verbal taunts and 65 percent reported feeling depressed and embarrassed because of the bullying.
“It’s troubling and shocking all at the same time,” allergist Dr. Cliff Bassett, the medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York, told AOL Health. “It’s a problem that perhaps has been underestimated because we were not always aware of this phenomenon. We need to try to reduce the stigma of having a food allergy.”
Prior work has shown that food allergies affect children’s quality of life and can lead to depression, stress and anxiety, according to Sicherer. But his research went a step further.
“Our study is the first to explore teasing, harassment and bullying behaviors aimed at these children,” he said in a statement. “The results are disturbing, as they show that children not only have to struggle with managing their food allergies, but also commonly bear harassment from their peers.”
The bullying didn’t cause any allergic reactions, but the psychological effects were alarming, especially since almost one in 25 kids has a food allergy.
“What is so concerning about these results is the high rate of teasing, harassment and bullying, its impact on these vulnerable children, and the fact that perpetrators include not only other children, but adults as well,” Sicherer said. “Considering the seriousness of food allergy, these unwanted behaviors risk not only adverse emotional outcomes, but physical risks as well.”
It isn’t uncommon for food-allergic teens to refuse to carry treatments with them like EpiPens for fear of retaliation by their peers, according to Bassett.
“It’s like a scarlet letter,” he said. “I try to make it cool for the kids and strategize with them about how to make them more comfortable.”
Sicherer and his colleagues recommend more education for teachers and students about the sensitivities of children with food allergies and a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying in school.
“If there was education about food allergies, there might be less mystery and more understanding,” he said.
This article originally appeared on AOL Health.