What Every Parent Should Know About Food Allergies in Babies and Children
Parents of children with food allergies must take extra precautions when dining out and purchasing food for their families, as even the smallest trace of an allergen can lead to a life-threatening allergic reaction.
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According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “About 7.6% of children have food allergies.” This increase is of concern to parents and health care professionals. Parents of children with food allergies must take extra precautions when dining out and purchasing food for their families, as even the smallest trace of an allergen can lead to a life-threatening allergic reaction. Fortunately, parents can take steps to protect their children from allergens and effectively manage symptoms.
Common Food Allergies and Their Symptoms
The most common food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, wheat, soy, eggs, and shellfish. Parents should be familiar with the symptoms of common food allergies and understand the differences among food intolerance, food poisoning, and food allergy.
Concerning Statistics of Allergies
Studies show that allergens have a differing range of effects on children. Tree nut allergies, for instance, affect 1.2% of children, but black children are more likely to be allergic than white children. While shellfish allergies affect 1.3% of children, this percentage increased by 7% between 2010 and 2016. Peanut allergies affect 2.2% of children, including 1% to 3% of children of westernized countries.
Some childhood allergies disappear over time. 80% of children outgrow cow milk allergies, and roughly 67% of kids outgrow egg allergies. 80% of kids also outgrow a soy allergy by age 5, and 65% outgrow wheat allergies by age 12.
These allergies carry a price tag. The cost of caring for children with allergies in the U.S. is approximately $21.8 billion. This breaks out to $4,184 per child.
Understanding the Difference
Food allergies can be mislabeled if they’re mistaken for other types of food. Allergic reactions are caused by an overactive immune system that treats harmless allergens as a danger. Food intolerance, on the other hand, occurs when an individual has difficulty digesting a certain food. Food poisoning is another category, and its symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.
There are distinct symptoms of a food allergy. These include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, but they can also include sneezing, wheezing, throat tightness, hives, and swelling of the mouth, lips, or tongue.
Risk and Diagnosis
Some children are at greater risk for developing a food allergy but still need the expertise of an allergist to properly diagnose one.
Risk Factors and Dangers Associated with Food Allergies
Some of the risk factors associated with food allergies include asthma, young age, and an immature immune system. Having a family history of asthma, hives, hay fever, or eczema can also be potential red flags. The primary danger linked to food allergies is a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Their symptoms include shock, rapid heart rate, swollen throat, and a tightening or constriction of the airways. If left untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to coma or death.
Diagnosing a Food Allergy
When physicians are looking for food allergies, they will ask about the child’s symptoms, reaction frequency, and length of time between eating a food and the onset of symptoms. They’ll also inquire about family members’ allergies and conditions like asthma and eczema. Doctors will then eliminate other potential causes of symptoms, such as lactose intolerance or celiac disease.
Physicians may then request a referral to an allergist, which could lead to additional testing. One of the tests is a skin test, which could reveal food sensitivities. Another test is a blood test, in which the blood is checked for IgE antibodies to fight specific foods. A third test is a food challenge. If the results of skin or blood tests are unclear, the child is given increasing amounts of the potential food allergen under a doctor’s supervision to identify an allergic reaction.
Prevention and Treatment
Parents can take steps to reduce their children’s risk of developing an allergy. Parents of children already diagnosed with an allergy can turn to medicine and other therapy options to manage their allergy symptoms.
To help reduce the risk of a child developing a peanut allergy, parents should introduce peanut-containing peanut allergy, parents should introduce peanut-containing products to infants between 4 and 11 months of age. Parents should also not delay the introduction of top allergen foods to infants, as this could increase their risk of developing allergies.
There are several preventative or treatment measures parents can take regarding an allergic reaction, such as equipping children with a medical alert bracelet, ensuring easy access to medicine, and carefully reading ingredient labels. When dining out, parents should speak to the waiter upon arrival and order food with simple ingredients.
When assessing treatment options, food allergists should consider two potential outcomes. The first is desensitization, which is defined by the Internal Medicine Journal as “the ability to eat a food without reaction while continuing on regular doses of that food (e.g. continuing oral immunotherapy), but the underlying allergy persists.” The second is tolerance, which is the result of reprogramming the immune system, thus allowing an individual to consume a food without reaction once they stop regularly consuming it. Other potential treatments include oral immunotherapy (OIT), epicutaneous food patches, medicines like antihistamines, and epinephrine auto-injectors.
Food allergies, while common, are manageable thanks to advancements in medicine and OIT. Parents, nurses, and allergists working together can help reduce the risk of life-threatening allergic reactions in children and help them outgrow their allergies.