The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted a worrisome trend in the U.S.: the prevalence of food allergies among children 17 years and younger increased from 3.4 percent in 1997 to 5.1 percent in 2011. This prompted Food Allergy Research & Education to call the condition a rising epidemic. It isn’t entirely clear why the number of children with food allergies is growing, but if you’re the parent of a child with these problems, you’re well aware of the impact and, with knowledge of how food allergies are diagnosed and treated, you can help your child.
Understand what is, and isn’t, an allergy
It’s important to distinguish a food allergy from a food sensitivity. The terms “food sensitivity” or “food intolerance” are used to describe a situation in which a person eats something that causes discomfort or irritation that’s usually confined to the digestive system. Lactose intolerance, which makes it difficult to break down the sugar in dairy products, is an example of a food sensitivity.
A food allergy is different – it’s an immune response to something that’s been eaten. The immune system, which should defend the body from pathogens, overreacts, and the effects can negatively impact the entire body. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to food may include hives, itching, swelling, diarrhea and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the body may go into anaphylactic shock, which can be deadly if not treated.
The most common causes of food allergies include:
- Cow’s milk
- Tree nuts
- In some cases, people who have pollen allergies will also react to certain raw fruits and vegetables.
Steps you can take to help your child
If you suspect your child has a food allergy but aren’t sure where to find answers, a personal health advisor can recommend appropriate medical specialists who can develop an appropriate diagnosis and personalized plan for managing your child’s food allergy.
Only a trained specialist, such as an immunologist or allergist, can diagnose the cause of your child’s problem. He or she will need to know your child’s medical history, perform a physical exam and ask questions about the patient’s reactions to food. To pinpoint the causes of a potential food allergy, the specialist will perform scratch tests, in which your child’s skin is exposed to small amounts of potential triggers. If a skin test is not appropriate, the specialist may take blood samples.
Preventing exposure to trigger foods is pivotal, meaning you should ask about what ingredients are in restaurant food and read nutrition labels very carefully when shopping. In the case of an emergency, you, your child, school teachers and administrators, and any other person who is responsible for your child should carry and know how to use any prescribed auto-injectable epinephrine and antihistamines.
Once the specialist confirms your child’s food allergy, he or she can work together with your family to create a personalized plan that will help protect your child against the dangers of an allergic reaction and manage their condition effectively.