Food Allergies on the Rise

Numerous studies have found an increase in childhood food allergies to such common triggers as eggs, milk, soy and wheat. The good news is that many children eventually outgrow these allergies by age 6.


That’s often not the case, however, for allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish or shellfish. The symptoms can range from mild to severe, including hives and skin swelling, breathing problems, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and circulation problems.



What exactly is a food allergy and what are the symptoms?


A food allergy is an abnormal immune defense response. When you eat a certain food you are allergic to – such as peanuts, dairy or wheat – your body mistakenly treats it as a harmful pathogen, creating a defense system of antibodies to fight it.


The symptoms occur as a by-product of the action of those antibodies – sometimes after only a tiny amount has been ingested.


Suspect an allergy if your child has a reaction within 30 to 60 minutes  (or even immediately) upon eating, particularly if it is the first time a food has been introduced.


Severe allergic reactions entail difficulty breathing or swallowing, repeated vomiting or coughing, lightheadedness or an altered or a loss of consciousness.


If your child is experiencing such a severe allergic reaction, treat according to doctor’s instructions and take him immediately to the emergency room. It can be life threatening.



How are food allergies diagnosed?


If you suspect your child has a food allergy, see your child’s doctor or an allergist, who will examine and take a medical history, asking questions about the foods your child eats and the severity, frequency and type of symptoms she has experienced.


The usual way to confirm a food allergy is through a skin scratch test. The skin on the back or arm is pricked so that a small amount of extract made from the food can penetrate the skin. If a hive or bump develops within 20 minutes, it suggests a food allergy. Your child’s medical history is very important in interpreting any positive test results.



How do you treat food allergies?


Avoid the foods. Parents should ask about ingredients in meals when eating in restaurants or outside the home and carefully read food labels when grocery shopping.


To quickly and effectively treat an allergic reaction, parents should make sure the correct dose of antihistamine medication is close at hand (at home, in the car and at the school office). Children with food allergies should have an EpiPen (a portable auto-injection device with a dose of epinephrine) at ready access.


In addition to parents or guardians, any other caregivers should know when and how to use the EpiPen.



I think my daughter is lactose intolerant. Is this different than a food allergy?


Yes. Lactose intolerance is a classic case of food intolerance. Your daughter may have trouble digesting milk sugar (lactose), which can cause bloating, stomach pain and diarrhea.


It’s also important to remember that food can cause other illnesses, such as food poisoning, that can be confused with food allergies.



I’m worried about my baby developing food allergies. Should I wait to introduce certain foods into her diet?


There’s no evidence that delaying the introduction of certain foods or avoiding certain foods during pregnancy, as previously advised, will decrease the odds of your child developing food allergies.


Introduce your baby to new foods one at a time and wait at least two to three days before beginning another. After each food, watch for any allergic reaction such as diarrhea, a rash, vomiting or breathing difficulties. In babies and children with eczema, certain foods can make this skin condition worse.


If she has a reaction, stop giving her that particular food and talk to your pediatrician. If her reaction is severe, go to the emergency room.


Once you have introduced a particular food successfully without any adverse reaction, make sure you keep it in her diet consistently.


Jamila Martin, M.D., is a board-certified pediatric allergist and immunologist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Mountain View Center. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.




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