When your baby can sit, that’s your cue to introduce solid foods. It’s an exciting, messy milestone that also brings concerns about food allergies. Let’s take a look at what food allergies are, what may cause them, and how they’re diagnosed.
What are Food Allergies?
A food allergy occurs when a person’s immune system overreacts to proteins found in food. These reactions can be mild, life-threatening, or somewhere in-between.
Signs of a food allergy usually show up within a couple of minutes or hours after eating and include:
- Skin rash
- Swelling of the tongue, face or lips
- Wheezing or other signs of breathing difficulty
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Pale or blue skin
- Loss of consciousness
While any food can potentially cause an allergic reaction, some are more likely to. An estimated 90 percent of allergic reactions to food are caused by:
- Cow’s milk
- Tree nuts, like almonds, cashews and walnuts
Why are Food Allergies so Common?
According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Current statistics estimate that 1 in 13 children under age 18 have them.
Researches don’t know for sure why these numbers are so high, but they suspect a few possible reasons.
One hypothesis is that children in developed countries are exposed to fewer microbes (bacteria) that create a healthy microbiome (gut) that protects against food allergies. Proposed reasons for this altered gut bacteria are hotly debated, but include going overboard on cleanliness and antibiotic use.
Others say food allergies are on the rise simply because we’re better at diagnosing them. Still others point to misdiagnosis as the culprit, highlighting the fact that other issues can cause allergy-like symptoms that lead parents to assume their child is allergic to a food when they’re not.
Conditions that Mimic Food Allergies
If a child has tummy pain, diarrhea or vomiting after eating, it may look like an allergic reaction but could be due to other things, such as:
- Food sensitivities — These are different from allergies because they are never life-threatening, and are caused by trouble digesting certain foods rather than an immune-system response.
- Food poisoning
- Too much sugar
- Reaction to a food additive, like caffeine or preservatives
In addition, some acidic foods like tomato or citrus can cause skin irritation that may be mistaken for an allergy.
How are Food Allergies Diagnosed?
A pediatric allergist may use skin prick or blood tests, oral food challenges (giving a child potentially allergenic foods in a medical setting), elimination diets, or a combination of these to diagnose a food allergy.
Because it’s so important to correctly diagnose food allergies, you should always enlist the help of your child’s pediatrician or a pediatric allergist if your little one has a negative reaction to food.
Is There Treatment for Food Allergies?
As of now, there is no treatment for food allergies other than avoiding foods a child is allergic to. If a child has a history of life-threatening reactions (anaphylaxis), parents need to keep an epinephrine autoinjector (like an EpiPen) with them at all times. Epinephrine is a hormone that can stop an anaphylactic reaction. Other caregivers and teachers need to know what the child is allergic to and how to inject epinephrine if needed.
The good news is that while allergies to tree nuts, fish and shellfish tend to persist, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that 80-90 percent of egg, milk, wheat and soy allergies are outgrown by age 5, and 1 in 5 children outgrow peanut allergies.
Recommendations about introducing common allergenic foods to your baby have recently changed. Head over to this article for guidelines about introducing first foods in an allergy-friendly way.