The Real Danger of Food Allergies

If your child has food allergies, you know how serious and life-altering they can be. Now, a groundbreaking study by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine shows just how common they are.

Nearly 6 million American kids that are 18 years of age or younger (roughly 1 in 13) are allergic to at least one food, according to the 2011 study – twice as many as previously thought. Of those, 39 percent had severe allergic reactions, and 30 percent had multiple food allergies. The most common allergies were to peanuts (25 percent), milk (21 percent), shellfish (17 percent) and tree nuts (13 percent).

Not all negative reactions to food are allergic reactions, however. Sometimes kids just have an intolerance of certain foods. Here’s how to know if your child has food allergies – and what you should do about it.

Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

With an allergy, the immune system responds to a particular food as if it were an enemy, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID). After the first exposure, the body produces antibodies to fight the food. After the second exposure, the antibodies trigger the release of certain chemicals (called histamines) that cause symptoms to occur.

With food intolerance, however, the immune system isn’t involved, so the condition is not life-threatening. Intolerance is a reaction of the digestive system; potential causes can be sensitivity to food additives, recurring stress, etc. The most common nonallergic reactions are to lactose, gluten and food additives. Food intolerances are not as worrisome, and the doctor may recommend things to do to aid digestion.

Common Allergy Signs and Symptoms

An allergic reaction occurs from within a few minutes to an hour after a child is exposed, according to Children’s Hospital Boston, and can range from mild to life-threatening. (Exposure to even the smallest amount can produce a reaction.)

Common symptoms include:

  • Vomiting, diarrhea, cramps
  • Hives
  • Swelling
  • Eczema
  • Itching or swelling of the lips, tongue or mouth
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Lowered blood pressure

If your baby or young child has milk or soy allergies, symptoms include:

  • Colic
  • Blood in the stool
  • Poor growth

If you think your child has had an allergic reaction, consult with your child’s doctor to come up with a treatment plan. If the symptoms are severe, seek immediate medical attention.

Will Food Allergies Be Outgrown?

Food allergies usually begin in early childhood, but they can develop later, according to NIAID. Your child will likely outgrow allergies to eggs, milk or soy – but not peanuts. Allergies to tree nuts, fish and shellfish may also be lifelong allergies, according to Children’s Hospital Boston.

Treatment for Food Allergies

If you’re worried that your child has food allergies, talk to your doctor. There’s no medication to prevent food allergies; all you can do is try to avoid exposure, according to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. After your child’s doctor confirms the allergy, be sure your child stays away from that particular food and other foods in the same group. If your child’s reaction is severe, the doctor may prescribe an emergency kit with epinephrine to counteract the symptoms in case of exposure.

After three to six months, your child’s doctor may reintroduce some foods back into the diet to see if your child can tolerate them.

About the Author

Gail Belsky is an editorial consultant and writer, and an adjunct professor of journalism. A 12-year veteran of women’s publications, she was a senior editor at Parents magazine and an executive editor at both Working Mother magazine and Time Inc.’s custom publishing division, where she created and edited two women’s service magazines for Target stores. Belsky worked on the launch of Time Inc.’s All You magazine and was an editorial consultant at Meredith Corp., where she created four custom publications for American Baby magazine. Most recently, she wrote a book for women, entitled The List: 100 Ways to Shake Up Your Life (Seal Press 2008).


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