Roughly one in 13 American kids under the age of 18 typically suffers from at least one food allergy - and nearly 40% of these youngsters have experienced a severe allergic reaction after consuming a food, along with having higher rates of asthma, skin and respiratory allergies.
Some allergists believe that much of what is called a ‘food allergy’ may simply be food intolerance or a non-allergic issue.
However, a real food allergy can be serious, even life threatening.
For a child to become allergic to a particular food, it must have either consumed the food at least once before or been exposed to it through breast milk - so that its immune system makes antibodies to ‘antigenic’ proteins in that particular food.
The most common food allergies in children are caused by peanuts, cow’s milk, eggs, tree nuts, soy, fish, shellfish and wheat. While allergies caused by peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish usually last a lifetime, kids often outgrow their early allergies to wheat, eggs, soy and cow’s milk.
An allergic reaction to a food usually occurs within minutes to an hour after consumption and can include:
- Skin symptoms such as hives, itching, rash, swelling of the lips, tongue, face
- Digestive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain
- Respiratory symptoms including wheezing, congestion, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing due to swelling of the throat
- Cardiovascular symptoms such as a sudden drop in BP, dizziness, lightheadedness
The most severe allergic response - known as anaphylaxis - is a medical emergency. In this condition, throat swelling interferes with normal breathing and swallowing, while the heart rate rises and BP drops suddenly.
To identify a food allergy, an allergist will have to consider the complete list of foods the child has consumed before the reaction - along with the signs, symptoms, severity and length of the reaction.
A skin test can help determine which foods cause a child to react. In this test, a small amount of food extract is applied to the skin of the child’s arm or back. The appearance of a red, itchy bump (or wheal) within 15 minutes suggests an allergy.
Blood tests may also help to identify an allergy, although a positive test can be wrong as much as 90% of the time.
An oral food challenge is the only definitive way to diagnose food allergy. It is usually done in the allergist’s office, and that too only if the risk of anaphylaxis is low.
There is no cure for food allergies. The only treatment is avoiding foods that cause reactions.
Raising a child with food allergies safe can be very challenging and stressful for its parents, who must search food labels for ingredients that can cause reactions; notify family, friends, schools, and restaurants of their child’s allergy; and always be prepared for an emergency.