Food allergies are on the rise, so it's natural to wonder about the potential harm to your child. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, the prevalence of food allergies in children under 18 increased from 3.4 percent to 5.1 percent between 1997 and 2011. You may feel like every kid at your child’s school has an allergy, or you may be managing this serious medical condition within your own family.
While reactions to food can be serious, it's important to know the facts and what you can do to reduce your child's risk. Food allergies are highest in infants and toddlers and are much less common in adults than children due mostly to the differences in the immune response of infants and children as compared to adults
Promising treatments for food allergies are in the works. Ongoing studies indicate it may be possible to "desensitize" children, even those with severe reactions.
What Is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy reaction happens when the immune system attacks a food protein that it mistakes as a threat to the body. Symptoms may include itching or swelling of the mouth, throat, face or skin; trouble breathing; and stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. A severe food allergy can be life threatening.
To confirm a food allergy and avoid unnecessary diet restrictions, a diagnosis should be made by a doctor. You should not diagnose yourself or your child with a food allergy. The only way to prevent a food allergy reaction is to completely avoid the food and any product that may contain it as an ingredient.
Food intolerance does not trigger the immune system and is not life threatening or the same as a food allergy, although it may share similar symptoms. For example, a child with a milk allergy must avoid all milk products, while a child who is lactose intolerant (lacking the enzyme to break down natural sugars in milk), but not allergic, may be able to eat small amounts of dairy.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports that five percent of children in the U.S. have a food allergy. The most common food allergies in children are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and wheat. These foods, along with fish and shellfish, account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions (among children and adults). While your child may outgrow milk, egg or soy allergies, food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish tend to be lifelong.
Tips for Reducing a Child's Risk of Developing Food Allergies
Take special care with feeding practices during your child's first years, especially if a biological parent or sibling has been diagnosed with an allergic disease. While following these feeding tips cannot guarantee a child will not develop a food allergy, it may help reduce the risk.
Exclusive breast-feeding for six months decreases the incidence of atopic dermatitis, cow's milk allergy and wheezing in early life when compared with feeding infants cow's milk-based formula. The use of soy-based infant formula does not appear to play a role in allergy prevention.
Delaying the introduction of solid foods beyond 4 to 6 months of age does not appear to provide significant protection from developing food allergies.
At this time, there is insufficient evidence to recommend further dietary interventions such as avoiding specific foods (including fish, eggs or peanuts) during pregnancy, or breast-feeding beyond 4 to 6 months of age to protect against the development of food allergies.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommends introducing peanut-containing foods as early as 4 to 6 months to prevent peanut allergy. If at any time your infant reacts badly to a food, such as suddenly developing a skin condition, wheezing, vomiting or excessive diarrhea, or if you have any reason to suspect a food allergy, call your pediatrician immediately.
Keeping Your Child Healthy and Safe
Once your pediatrician or allergist has tested and confirmed food allergies, you need to be diligent about avoiding the food(s). Always read food labels and if you are unsure of an ingredient, call the manufacturer for details. Educate family, caregivers and teachers about your child's allergies. Some people don't know how serious food allergies can be and may not understand even tiny amounts of a food can be a problem. In addition, be sure to teach children about the allergy. Children can learn to take responsibility for avoiding the foods that cause problems.
Consult a registered dietitian nutritionist to develop a healthful eating pattern while avoiding allergens. It may seem easier to eliminate an entire food group for a specific allergy (e.g., avoiding all grains due to wheat allergy), but it’s important to find substitutes (in this case, other grains) that your children will accept, so they can continue to get all the nutrients they need to grow.
When eating away from home, pack back-up foods with you, read restaurant websites and look up nearby grocery stores before you go. As a family, experiment with alternative ingredients and recipes for favorite dishes so your child doesn’t feel left out.
You can help your child feel safe and empowered by finding age-appropriate ways to teach how to discuss and manage allergies, educating and providing action plans to caregivers, and getting social and mental health support for your whole family.
For more information on food allergies, visit Food Allergy Research & Education at foodallergy.org.