Teens most at risk of anaphylaxis

Imagine yourself a teenager, a bundle of nerves, sharing your first kiss. But that tingling you’re beginning to feel is not new love; it’s the start of a potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reaction, triggered by that kiss.

Teenage allergy

Image by random_alias/Flickr

It’s Allergy Awareness Week, and if you don’t have a child with a life-threatening allergy, you may be under the impression that anaphylaxis is an issue mainly for smaller children. In actual fact, teenagers are at the highest risk of anaphylaxis. They also face a whole set of unique challenges in managing their allergy that younger children don’t.

We spoke with Maria Said from Anaphylaxis Australia to get the facts on teens with allergies.

During my involvement with daycare centres and primary schools, I was very aware of having to be mindful of children with severe allergies. Now with a child in high school, I hear very little about it. Is this because teenagers grow out of their allergies?

No. Many children outgrow allergies to milk, egg, soy and wheat by the time they reach high school. However, peanut, tree nut (cashew, almond, walnut etc), sesame fish and shellfish allergies are usually life long.

Although fatal allergic reactions are rare, they do happen, and mostly in teenagers or young adults who are peanut allergic. Most fatalities in this age group occur when the teenagers are eating away from home, and in most of these cases the teenager also had asthma as a co-existing condition. Although they had been prescribed an adrenaline autoinjector (EpiPen® or Anapen®) it is either not given or given too late after the onset of the allergic reaction.

A 16-year-old boy lost his life to anaphylaxis in a Sydney high school last year (during Food Allergy Awareness Week). It was very sad for all involved. Although we don’t have details I can say that when investigating fatalities we often find that it is a system, a series of protocols, not implemented effectively that contributes to the loss of life and trauma for all involved.

Teens are our high-risk group. We should have greater awareness in high schools. Our teens with allergy need more support and understanding. We need them to feel okay about disclosing their allergy, reading a label and carrying medication.

Do high schools take less responsibility than primary schools or daycare centres for having foods that are anaphylactic triggers? Perhaps there is the belief that teenagers are old enough to look out for themselves?

High schools need to take food allergy and the risks of anaphylaxis more seriously. I think there is an underlying thought that ‘these kids are old enough to look after themselves’ but the reality is that they need support and understanding.  Teens don’t want to be different. It’s okay to carry your mobile phone or iPod because everyone else does, but some teens are reluctant to carry their emergency medication and their ASCIA Action Plan (emergency plan) with them. They might also be reluctant to draw attention to themselves by reading a food label when purchasing a packaged food or disclosing their allergy when stopping at a cafe with mates after school or on the weekend.

Teachers have a duty of care to children with allergy whether they are 6 or 16 years old. They need to undergo specialised anaphylaxis training so they can put strategies in place that help remove the stigma (either real or perceived) of food allergy from the school community.

All students also need to understand the basics of supporting a classmate with food allergy. [See list at end of article]

What are the particular issues that teenagers face in managing their allergies, that don’t exist when they are younger?

Teens are independent; they want to hang out with friends and not adults who ‘check’ everything. Kids need to be empowered with learning strategies to reduce the risk of allergic reactions from a young age. They cannot just be handed responsibility when starting high school.

Teens like to go with the flow and little is pre-planned so this increases risks for the teen with food allergy. People with allergy need to forward plan but forward planning is not something teens think is cool…they love to be spontaneous but spontaneity can be more of a risk for those with a food allergy.

Teens sometimes drink and then can become less guarded about checking food content.

Dating is also another challenge for teens with food allergy. Passionate kissing can trigger serious reactions and it is not real cool to break the intimate moment and ask what someone has eaten in the hours prior to the first kiss.

Do children ever develop allergies in their teen years that they didn’t previously have?

Children can develop allergies in their teen years, but it is not as common as in early childhood though. When this happens, it is really difficult because it is right out of the left field and ‘another’ thing a teen has to deal with. If a child has grown up with allergy and has been managing it in early childhood, they at least have some understanding of the care that needs to be taken, they have friends that know about it and it is not another life change at a time when there are so many other life changes.

For more information on teenagers with allergy, visit www.allergyfacts.org.au

How your teenager can support their schoolmates with a food allergy:

  • Don’t share food.
  • Wash hands after eating.
  • Don’t tease or trick your mate that has food allergy.
  • Consider their food needs when out and about (eg don’t suggest eating Asian food if they are nut allergic).
  • Learn about signs and symptoms and what to do in an emergency.
  • Get help ASAP if their friend looks sick.




  1. Love the article; you make excellent points. As someone who grew up with fatal food allergies, I’d like to add another aspect of the issue that many people don’t consider. Teens may actually feel they’re safer not letting others know of a life-threatening medical condition. Bullying of food-allergic children is very common. It’s fairly common for food-allergic children to be threatened with the very foods that could kill them, whether it’s an incident of bullying or hazing. In the States, we just had an incident of hazing involving peanut butter and a peanut-allergic student. It is not uncommon for students to go to school fearful of bullies or hazing rituals in which they are physically threatened, and telling people about a life-threatening food allergy or doing things that might tip someone off to one (carrying epinephrine, checking labels, avoiding unlabeled food, etc.) may feel like the equivalent of handing someone a knife they can then use to stab you. Until we treat the weaponization of allergens for what it is–attempted murder no different than bringing a weapon to campus–we can expect teens and young adults to not carry medications, check labels, or ask questions for fear of their lives.

    • Thekids says:

      That’s a terrible state of affairs Teri. Thanks for shedding some light on how serious it can be for some teenagers.



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