Food allergies in children get a lot of attention from parents, especially since approximately 1 in 20 children under the age of 5 are allergic to at least one food.
It is a common issue, and can be very concerning. Allergic reactions to foods can be serious, so it is important to educate yourself with the facts!
I have worked extensively with parents and children, talking with them about nutrition in general and helping to understand food allergies. From my experience, here are the top 5 things to know about food allergies in children:
1. Six foods are the most common. In infants and children, the most common foods the cause allergic reactions are: eggs, milk, peanut, treat nuts, soy, and wheat (these cover 6 of the 8 major food allergens - the other two are fish and shellfish). Some children outgrow their egg, milk and soy allergies, but generally do not outgrow their allergy to peanut.
2. Symptoms are varied. A food allergy occurs when a food triggers an abnormal response by the body’s immune system, and this can occur in minutes or hours after ingesting the food. Symptoms include: itching of the mouth, swelling of the lips/tongue, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps/pain, hives, rash, tightening of the throat or trouble breathing. Anaphylaxis is a severe form of allergic reaction that requires immediate medical attention because it can be life-threatening.
3. Diagnosis can be confirmed. Monitoring your child’s food intake and potential symptoms using a food diary can provide clues about a possible food allergy. If you suspect your child may have an allergy, you should consult with your pediatrician immediately. Diagnosis of a food allergen can be confirmed using a blood test, but often food challenges are the most definitive form of diagnosis. Food challenges are typically given at an age when the child can clearly communicate what they are experiencing. Medication such as epinephrine may be prescribed by your doctor when an allergy is diagnosed.
4. Food avoidance and preparation is key when an allergy has been diagnosed. It is important to learn proper label reading and potential for cross-contamination of allergens. You will need to educate family, caregivers, and teachers about your child’s allergies and how to deal with them if a reaction occurs. Be explicit about what is required, as everyone’s knowledge of what allergies mean could be varied. You will also need to teach your child about the allergy. You can start as soon as you learn about their allergies, regardless of their age – they may not understand what you are saying, but it will start to become familiar. He or she will need to learn how to avoid the foods they are allergic to and communicate to others to help them protect themselves. It is recommended that your child has a nutritional evaluation and is monitored for proper growth.
5. Do not avoid introducing solid foods to your baby in an effort to prevent development of an allergy. Experts have agreed that breastfeeding is encouraged to prevent food allergies. If a child is not exclusively breastfed, a hydrolyzed infant formula is suggested for infants “at risk” (at least 1 parent or sibling with a food allergy). Neither delaying the introduction of solid foods (including potential allergens) beyond 4 to 6 month, nor mom avoiding specific foods during pregnancy or breastfeeding, has been shown to provide any significant protective effect from developing a food allergy. It is recommended to introduce a baby to new foods one at a time. This allows for the ability to identify a troublesome food. It is not as important which order the foods are introduced in, as long as they are age appropriate and you are offering a well-balanced diet. After each new introduction, you should wait 3-5 days before giving another new food. During this time, make sure not to eliminate other foods your child is eating, as you already know they are safe if they have not had any adverse reactions.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not a medical recommendation. Food allergies can be very serious, and it is important that you speak with your pediatrician about specific concerns with your child. If you have any questions on the information provided here, feel free to ask me.