It’s a big job managing potentially dangerous food allergies in children, but it’s also more common than one may think. “During the first year of life, up to 10 percent of all infants have been reported to have developed an allergic reaction to a food,” Dr. Ama Alexis, an infectious disease allergy and immunology physician for children tells SheKnows. “As children get older, this number falls to about 3-4 percent. Most allergies are outgrown as children get older, but peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish may persist for life.” Although it may feel worrisome, Dr. Alexis says parents don’t need to worry too much and outlines the three ways to manage food allergies in their child: education, communication, and preparedness.
Education starts with a consultation with a board-certified allergist (AAAAI or ACAAI). “You’ll also want to make sure everyone is aware of the diagnosis i.e. family, friends, school, camp, restaurants, etc,” notes Dr. Alexis of the communication part. And when it comes to being prepared, it’s crucial to read food labels, always have a safe snack, and carry rescue medication at all times. Below, read what other experts had to say on what parents should know about the causes, symptoms, and treatments to help your child with food allergies.
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Causes of food allergies
There are multiple hypotheses as to what causes food allergies, with Dr. Reenal Patel, owner of Allergy MD in Long Island City, NY, saying there’s not really one specific cause. “Not one thing will necessarily trigger food allergies, but we tend to find food allergies higher in those individuals who have eczema, asthma, or allergic rhinitis,” Dr. Patel says. Food allergies may be genetically linked, however. “Family history may play a role e.g. a close family member who has hay fever, eczema, food allergies, or asthma but the timing of food introduction may play a role as well,” says Dr. Alexis. Because of that, children are now typically introduced to most foods very early (starting at 6 months) rather than 1 or 2 years old.
About 90 percent of all food allergies in children are triggered by these foods: milk (including cow’s milk), eggs, wheat, soybean, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish with numbers rising with sesame seed. Among these, eggs, milk, and peanuts are the most common, and peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish cause the most severe reactions. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish are most likely to last a lifetime whereas the child may outgrow other allergies. It’s important to note that any food has the potential to cause an immediate reaction, but the above happens to be the most common.
“Most reactions occur within minutes while eating the meal but can present within two hours,” Dr. Alexis says. “The reaction can involve different body systems such as hives/welts, redness, itchiness on the skin, swelling of the eyes, ears, lips, tongue or throat, repeated vomiting or diarrhea, coughing or wheezing, or having a child that is inconsolable, pale, blue or very quiet/anxious. These reactions, whether small or large, would occur with every exposure to the food.”
Food allergies often present during infancy (as young as six months) and have the potential to cause an allergic reaction. Because of this, parents should be aware of if their child has atopic dermatitis (very dry, itchy, and inflamed skin) as they may be at increased risk of developing a reaction. Dr. Patel also suggests that parents monitor their kids for any sort of reactions when they start introducing them to foods.
Prevention and mitigation
It’s always best to discuss symptoms with your pediatrician as well as with a board-certified allergist/immunologist. Together with your healthcare provider, you can confirm the diagnosis and possibly prevent further allergies. “Our role is to educate the family on how to best avoid any accidental exposure to the food, how to treat your child should your child develop a mild or severe allergic reaction (Epipen, then 911), and whether a new FDA-approved therapy is a right option for the family,” says Dr. Alexis. “In recent years another therapy called oral immunotherapy (OIT) has become available and is offered by some allergists. There is a lot of research being done, so a yearly visit to an allergist can be very educational.”
One at-home preventative tool that’s become popular of late is SpoonfulONE. Starting as early as 4 months, you can add one of SpoonfulONE’s Mix-ins to your baby’s bottle or food (such as yogurt or oatmeal) once a day as a convenient and safe way to begin early allergen introduction. Each flavorless Mix-in contains 16 foods associated with over 90% of food allergies so that your baby’s immune system can get used to them early on and be less likely to mount an inflammatory response. If you have an older baby or toddler, the brand also makes Puffs, Crunchy Puffs and Oat Crackers that boast the same benefits in a more flavorful form.
Another alternative to a mild reaction is Benadryl. “If your child is having a mild reaction such as a rash or hives, it can be treated with Benadryl,” says Dr. Patel. “But if a parent is unsure if there’s a reaction progressing, and they’re worried, they’re never faulted for using an epinephrine device.” Managing food allergies in children day-to-day is a huge undertaking, but it can be done. The most important thing is to have a positive attitude about it with your child and to communicate their allergy to them in an age-appropriate manner from the start. “Let them be advocates for themselves from the start,” says Dr. Alexis. “Children are resilient and handle most situations well if they are given the right toolset.”