Parents sometimes do not realize when their young child has a food allergy. The symptoms can masquerade as other conditions, so parents may blame gastrointestinal symptoms on a stomach virus or some other culprit. That is understandable, since food allergies are not that common and neither is awareness of the symptoms. About 2 percent of adults and 3 to 8 percent of children have food allergies. Fortunately, many children outgrow food allergies by age 5 or 6 — with the exception of nut and peanut allergies.
Possible Symptoms of Food Allergy
- stomach cramps
- rash, itching or swelling in and around the mouth
- hives or a rash on the skin
- anaphylaxis (a rare, but severe, life-threatening reaction)
- asthma (occasionally caused by food allergy in babies)
Allergy, Intolerance or Adverse Reaction?
Food allergy is easily confused with food intolerance or adverse reactions. An allergy is when the body identifies a particular food as an invader. The immune system produces antibodies to repel the substance (the allergen). This response causes allergy symptoms. Four foods cause most allergies among children:
- cow’s milk
Peanuts (these are actually legumes), nuts, shellfish and fish also are common allergens.
Food intolerance is a digestive, not an immune, problem. The body does not fully digest a particular food. One example is lactose intolerance, the inability to properly digest lactose, the sugar in milk. Intolerant people may develop cramps, diarrhea, gas and bloating when they eat dairy products.
Some people have adverse reactions to food additives, which the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) says is an increasing problem. Additives that cause trouble for some people include MSG, sulfites and food colorings, among many others.
When to Suspect Food Allergies in Children
Although food allergies are not terribly common, it is important to know if your child has one so you can eliminate it from in the child’s diet. You should suspect food allergy when one or both parents has any kind of allergy. When children seem to have more than their share of diarrhea, stomach aches, ear infections, etc., parents should start observing the relationship between diet and symptoms.
Pay attention to what the child was eating shortly before the symptoms set in. If you notice a pattern, make an appointment with your pediatrician or an allergist, preferably one with experience treating children. Tests can confirm the presence of a food allergy. Unfortunately, allergy shots do not do the trick for food allergies. Strict avoidance of the allergen is the only way to prevent reactions. Parents of kids with food allergies have their work cut out for them, especially when their children are highly allergic.
What Parents Can Do
- Become a label reader. Even if you have to start carrying a pocket magnifying glass, read label ingredients compulsively. With products that you regularly buy, check periodically for changes and always check when the package says “new” or “improved.” Familiarize yourself with alternate names for the allergen. For instance, albumin is egg white and casein is a milk product. Generally speaking, you can reduce risk by cutting down on highly processed items and eating more whole, unprocessed foods. That makes for a healthier diet, too, for the entire family.
- If your child has had an anaphylactic reaction or is at risk of having one, (check with the pediatrician or allergist) you will need to keep an epinephrine kit with you at all times. This is so you can administer a shot of epinephrine — adrenaline — in the event of anaphylaxis. You will need to make sure your child’s school, day care, babysitters, etc. are equally equipped, trained to recognize the signs and prepared to handle the emergency. The AAAAI recommends that severely allergic people wear an I.D. bracelet that tells of the allergy.
- Eating out can be tough. Try to choose restaurants that either have ingredient listings available or seem aware of allergy problems and eager to accommodate your needs. Learn about hidden ingredients and food handling and preparation processes. Children who are highly allergic may react upon contact with the allergen or by consuming a minute amount, so extreme caution in restaurants is well-advised. For children with mild allergies, medications can help ease the symptoms if they have an accidental encounter with an allergen.
- The Food Allergy Network recommends that you give the school an emergency action plan, written by your child’s doctor. Work closely with the school to make sure they understand the nature of the food allergy as well as the necessary precautions and responses. Older children usually can learn safe eating practices, but younger kids need supervision to make sure they do not trade, share or otherwise ingest foods and beverages that may be harmful.