When an everyday food, especially a healthy one, becomes your body’s enemy, the results can be devastating. Each year, life-threatening reactions to a food allergen result in 30,000 emergency room visits, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Although adults can develop a food allergy, the condition is more often diagnosed in childhood, affecting an estimated 4 to 6 percent of children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Knowing whether your child has a true allergy—and learning how to deal with it—is essential for your child’s health and psychological wellbeing, say medical experts.
Bringing up baby
In some cases, food allergies can be spotted as early as infancy. You may notice your child has an increase in spit-up, vomiting, recurrent hives or poor weight gain. If you notice these in your infant, talk to their pediatrician.
But if your baby hasn’t had a bad reaction to any foods, don’t be reluctant to introduce solids in an orderly fashion.
You can introduce new foods one at a time and wait three of four days between each to monitor reactions.
Although recent research results in the Learning Early About Peanut allergy (LEAP) study suggest that including peanuts in the diet up to age 5 may help head off peanut allergies, experts say the final verdict isn’t in yet; always check with your medical practitioner before trying a new approach like this.
Symptoms to watch for
Once your child starts eating a variety of foods, you may start seeing reactions even if infancy was uneventful. About 90 percent of allergic reactions are caused by consuming eggs, milk, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, finfish or shellfish, according to the FDA.
Hives may be the first sign of an allergic reaction. After that, more severe reactions could occur, including coughing, upper airway swelling, wheezing, blue skin and/or vomiting.
If any of these symptoms occur, don’t serve your child the suspected food again and don’t diagnose the problem yourself. Instead, see a food allergy specialist.
Pinpointing the problem
The first thing you’ll need to tell the allergist is what foods your child has eaten and the reactions they provoked.
Then, having a blood or skin test helps determine the potential for an allergy. Either test measures the presence of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, made by your body when you come into contact with a specific food.
If the test isn’t conclusive, your allergist may conduct an oral food challenge, giving your child small amounts of the suspect food and gradually increasing the amount over time, while monitoring his or her reaction. This should be done only in a facility with medications and equipment available in case of a reaction.
If the allergy tests are negative, your child may still have an intolerance to a specific food, which isn’t life threatening. But whether the verdict is an allergy or an intolerance, you’ll want to ask about recognizing the signs of a reaction, food avoidance strategies and medications for emergency use.